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There are things to like about this film, but most of them occur in the first half. The script is smart and economical, delivered by a cast with an exceedingly high percentage of “where have I seen him/her before?” types. And Meryl Streep again absolutely captivates as the insecure publisher of The Washington Post, negotiating her new role as a corporate leader in a male-dominated world, where her father and husband (prior publishers) are not there to protect or assist her.

The look is also spot on. Primarily set in 1971 Washington DC, it felt like a a tour of every Northwest Washington den and kitchen I inhabited and, necessarily, every living room and dining room I avoided.

But I should have been warned as to the coming danger when the first scene, which occurs in Vietnam, featured the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival, such a trope that whenever I hear John Fogerty, I assume the sound of helicopter blades will follow.

As minor as that hackneyed facet appears, it is a fissure that later becomes a chasm. After all of the fantastic work Streep does to subtly and movingly depict the stakes from a personal and political vantage point, and they are large (her family newspaper is betting its future in publishing top secret documents that indict four administrations), Spielberg just doesn’t trust you to get it. “This is big,”you can hear him thinking. “I’m afraid that the audience won’t understand that it was hard to be a woman in 1971, that Nixon was bad, and that a free press is really, really important.”

So, out comes the Louisville slugger, and the director proceeds to bashing all of the important points into the heads of the audience, rendering it senseless.

Two scenes with Streep and her fiery editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) are illustrative. In the first, when Hanks condescends to Streep by suggesting she is covering up for her good society friend Robert McNamara, she deftly parries his thrust with the observation that when he was close friends with President Kennedy, surely he must have “pulled some punches.” Later, however, when Hanks comes to Streep again to acknowledge his prior failures, we get a moist, awkward and unconvincing speech about how reporters can no longer be clubby with politicians going forward because, you know, Vietnam.

We had it, dummy.

Speaking of Vietnam, Spielberg’s rendition of it is so simplistic as to be offensive.  In his mind, The Pentagon Papers catalogued a multi-administration conspiracy almost wholly bent on killing innocents and saving face.  One can fault U.S. engagement in Vietnam until the cows come home, but when Spielberg distills it to such a childishly elemental basis, you can almost hear Ken Burns sighing, “I guess I didn’t need nine of those ten episodes.”

Spielberg‘s handling of the feminist theme is even more egregious. Everything Meryl Streep does in her performance makes superfluous the film’s later choices when dealing with the issue. Nonetheless, again, because Spielberg trusts no one, we are forced to endure a speech from Hanks‘s wife (Sarah Paulsen) that it sure has to be tough for Streep, because she is a woman; another woman approaches Streep at the Supreme Court, solely to thank her for her selfless sacrifice on behalf of her brother who is in, wait for it . . . Vietnam; and then, as Streep leaves the Supreme Court, in a scene that would have returned my breakfast had I had one, we see her walking down the steps of the building, cutting a line through throng of women, all of whom beam at their idol. DeMille’s parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments was more understated. This is not to mention the penultimate and final scenes, where a Post editor reads out the first line of the Supreme Court decision exonerating the paper in a manner that would only be appropriate for “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and then, a security guard calling in a break-in at a little place called the Watergate. Because, can you believe it? This Nixon went on to be even more troublesome. Nuts, right?

You may feel good after you leave this movie, but take heed.   The feeling is akin to the immediate euphoria one receives from eating a whole carton of ice cream. Soon, you will feel sick and/or shame. It is a testament to all of the other good things about the movie that the final excesses did not render a zero star rating. But really, if you want to see a great movie about a newspaper, re-watch Spotlight or All the President’s Men.

 

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Steven Soderbergh is a more-than competent director with some solid films (Contagion, Traffic, King of the Hill, two of the three Oceans movies), some overpraised ones (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich), a few minor masterpieces (The Limey, Out of Sight)  and some super duds (The UnderneathSolaris, The InformantThe Good German).  A few years back, he announced his retirement, leaving as his last directorial effort the minor, pedestrian Behind the Candelabra, the definitive Liberace movie literally no one was waiting for.  Soderbergh had concluded, “I just don’t think movies matter as much any more, culturally”, and it showed.

I presume Soderbergh recognized that he didn’t want to go out on a pop fly, and that his exit was a little whiny (“The worst development in film-making – particularly in the last five years – is how badly directors are treated” he huffed), so he’s gotten back into the game, directing a few TV series, and, returning to the big screen with Logan Lucky.

Unfortunately, if there was ever a movie that didn’t matter, culturally or otherwise, Logan Lucky is it, a limp re-make of Soderbergh’s Oceans flicks, sans the charm of Clooney, Pitt and gang. It also lacks the fun plotting of the casino heists and the Vegas glitz.  Instead, we get Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Daniel Craig playing at Boss Hog accents; a big score (at the Charlotte Speedway) that is plodding and lazy; and dull West Virginia and Charlotte standing in for the Bellagio fountains.

Instantly forgettable and in at least one way (using Seth McFarlane as a Brit with a worse accent than Don Cheadle in the Oceans movies) unforgivable.

 

 

I was underwhelmed by Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, mainly because of its dreary look and my own intellectual limitations.  Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 is visually dazzling with a plot that is intricate but not byzantine.  Ryan Gosling is a Blade Runner (i.e., a hunter of older model replicants – think Westworld – who have a tendency to go haywire).  Unlike Harrison Ford in the original film, Gosling is unequivocally a replicant himself, but in the process of putting down a replicant fugitive, he becomes ensnared in a larger, metaphysical mystery that melds corporate malfeasance, potential civil war, and Genesis.  It could have been ridiculously heavy, but Gosling manages a wry yet naïve countenance and the bloviations of the corporate would-be god (Jared Leto) are both few and leavened by Gosling’s running battle with a particularly fierce replicant (Sylvia Hoeks).

The film’s look is stunning and the real star is Gosling’s navigation of the eye-popping world around him.  Other than Robin Wright being horribly miscast as Gosling’s supervisor (her insistence on being ballsy is over the top, and her Sam Spade delivery is clunky) and the picture running a little long, this was well worth the time.

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A beautiful picture, depicting the languor and lethality of post World War II Mississippi as two families, one white and one black, are challenged and near-consumed by the stifling climate and punishing soil, as well as the psychological toll of war and the rotting cancer of racism.  It is rightly nominated for Best Cinematography and Adapted Screenplay, and Mary J. Blige stands-in as supporting actress nominee for any number of deserving performances (especially Rob Morgan as a stoic, beleaguered tenant farmer).  There is a stretch where the budding friendship of haunted war vets Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell skirts cliche’, but other than that, the film is rich with authenticity and heart.   It is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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During WWII, the Germans occupying Denmark laid 2.2 million mines on its coast in anticipation of an Allied invasion. The Danes employed their former occupiers to clean up those mines, the subject matter of this harrowing and haunting film. We follow a group of very young, very scared German soldiers who are given mine-clearing training and then a quadrant containing 45,000 mines. If they clear them at a certain rate, they will be allowed to go home in three months.

The process is nerve wracking. Mind you, these boys have instruction and some support, unlike the Iranian children during the Iran-Iraq war who were simply sent into the mine fields to clear by suicide in some glorious sacrifice. But the toll, both physical and psychological, is brutal, especially when inflicted on ones so young. They are homesick, hungry (their care was not paramount) and under the leadership of an embittered Danish sergeant who is fighting his own demons but is also humanized by their plight.

This is a beautiful picture, enhanced by touching, sensitive performances. There is talk every year of creating an Oscar for an ensemble, and this cast would be a deserving nominee. The film, however, is not for the faint of heart.

 

 

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Joe Wright’s (Atonement) film is repetitive, didactic, simplistic, and eventually, in one of the most cringe-inducing scenes you’ll ever see, when Winston Churchill finds himself on the Underground getting his back stiffened by “the people”, patently ridiculous.  The only thing missing on that subway car is Tiny Tim exclaiming “God Bless Us, everyone” and thereby spurring Churchill to reject appeasement and declare that England would “never surrender.”

It is also unnecessarily arty (a bombing scene is a particular sin, evoking Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, a film you really don’t want to ape in any manner) and annoyingly expositive – we learn about Churchill’s background via random members of the House of Commons speaking to each other as if they – or we – are dunces (“and his father died of syphillis!”  Harumph!)

Churchill was a lion,  But he was also a snake.  Now, one could argue that his lies were of necessity.  But here, they are simply ignored or recast as tactical blunders.  Don’t lie to the people, King George VI counsels.  Be straightforward, and they shall corner you in a subway car and show their true mettle.

And, apparently, it was Churchill and Churchill alone who deduced that you could send civilian boats to pick up stranded men at Dunkirk.  He is the oracle.  Everyone else on his war council is a dimwit, a ninny or a quitter.

Ostensibly, the real reason to see this movie is Gary Oldman‘s performance, and it is not bad. But it is not great. Oldman gets the fussiness, the hidden mirth, and the anger, but his stabs at insecurity come off as petulance, and on balance, the performance feels more like a mimicry.  In fact, recently, John Lithgow (The Crown) turned in much more nuanced and effective turn as Churchill.  Indeed, the best performance in this film does not belong to Oldman, but to Ben Mendelsohn as King George, who is subtly moved.

Watch The Crown.  Hell, watch King Ralph.

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Alistair Sim is by far and away the best Ebenezer Scrooge.  He is hardened and fierce yet he carries a barely perceptible regret and tenderness that makes his eventual transformation more of a de-icing than a bullet-dodged.  His exhilaration and mirth upon redemption are infectious, his realization he can play some awesome practical jokes on the likes of his housekeeper and clerk is hilarious, and his heartfelt apologies are actually very moving.  This is my favorite of the film adaptations.  DVR at once.