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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!



This is what a superhero movie is supposed to be. Consistently clever, mainly for young people but with crossover to adults, and devoid of all the dreary seriousness of Gotham city and world politics and ethical dilemmas for people dressed up for Mardis Gras. Add the fact that the characters are almost impossible not to enjoy, the CGI is nifty rather than a blaring assault, and there are some really funny bits. And the finale is a blast (rather than a dark, dull, crashing snorefest ala’ Wonder Woman). The film also has a proper villain, the sleek, sultry, campy goddess of death Cate Blanchett.

Quintessential popcorn flick.


Martin McDonagh’s previous films (In Bruges, Seven Psycopaths) are literate, high-wire act joys, runaway teams of horses where the director grabs the reins and brings everything in line for a final, dizzying and absurdist crescendo. Those movies centered on the outrageous machinations of the comical criminal underworld and, in the case of the latter film, the even more bizarre milieu of Hollywood screenwriting.

Three Billboards is set in a nondescript Missouri town, and while McDonagh presents off kilter characters, these are still purportedly regular folks: a mother grieving over the rape and murder of her daughter (Frances McDormand), a police chief dying of cancer (Woody Harrelson), and his emotionally stunted, racist deputy (Sam Rockwell). McDormand shakes up the town when she pays for space on three billboards excoriating the police for its failure to solve her daughter’s murder.

McDonagh intersperses the ridiculous with the truly touching. McDormand and Rockwell are nothing short of walking pipe bombs. Yet, the film has its gentle moments, and is punctuated by beautiful, personal vignettes that really sink deep.

I’ll recount one such moment. Harrelson is interrogating McDormand for her assault on a fellow citizen and as they thrust and parry, he accidentally coughs up blood in her face. She is a tough customer but her immediate reaction is so reflexively soothing, we get a glimpse of the woman who existed before her daughter’s death. It’s one of the most moving moments I’ve ever seen in a picture, and the film is filled with similar little touches, of Harrelson with his daughters, Rockwell with his doting mother, McDormand’s would-be beau (Peter Dinklage) as he struggles to get past her armor.

There are a few problems. A scene where McDormand harangues a priest over the Church’s molestation scandal is overwritten, and the fun had at the expense of her ex-husband’s 19 year old ditz of a girlfriend is too easy and over the top (she confuses polo with polio). The picture also loses its steam at the end in what felt like a contrived attempt at wrapping up. McDonagh fails to get all the reins in hand.

But the performances are splendid and the characters resonant. Simply watching McDormand negotiating her day is heart rending. I look forward to her best actress win tonight.

I was also struck by McDonagh’s ease in handling multi-faceted characters. They all exhibit terrible qualities, running the gamut from rank racism to brutality to reckless cruelty, but they also have truly human moments that suggest depth and nuance. That’s in short supply in film and sadly, real life, where everyone is so hellbent on burning scarlet letters on other folks at the drop of a hat.

Case in point.

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This is a clever, touching story of harried Ministry of Information filmmakers working on a “Dunkirk” morale booster propaganda picture during the Blitz.  An ode to the magic of movies and Brit pluck, the script is sly and witty, and the love interests (Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin) have actual chemistry.  But if none of that were true, I’d still recommend the picture unreservedly for Bill Nighy’s hilarious turn as a fussy, conceited, insecure actor who cannot accept that his age has negated his role as the hero.  As usual, he’s marvelous.  One reviewer aptly called Night “a colossally proportioned scene-stealer”, which is spot on.

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The Florida Project owes some debt to Beasts of the Southern Wild, another audacious and free-flowing picture that relied almost exclusively on a natural environment and its inhabitants through the eyes of a child.  In that film, the environment was the Southern bayou and a community cut off from the rest of the world by a Louisiana levee. Here, it is a stretch of highway miles from Orlando’s Disney World, where gift shops, liquor stores, time share scams and gaudy, low-end motels litter the strip.  The motels are primarily housed by people who pay by the week (the unfortunate tourists did not look too closely at the promotional materials), and we are introduced to the milieu via the daily play of four young actors. They are the children of poor people who cannot care for them during the day, and they play largely unobserved, unhindered, wildly, and desperate for attention.  That attention is given to them in a decent and caring manner by the motel manager, Willem Dafoe, who struggles to keep the right amount of emotional distance from the residents, almost all of whom are troubled or are going through tough times. He can barely disguise his affection for the children while at the same time maintaining order at his establishment, an order which includes forcing residents to spend a night away from the place at intermittent periods so they do not establish residency, and presumably, tenant rights.

I understand the child actors were for the most part amateurs, and the decision to use them was keen.  The best child actors lack the affectation and self knowledge you often find at its worst on Nickelodeon or in precocious children who watch too much of it.   These children are so natural, the film nearly veers into documentary, making their plight all the more harrowing and their story all the more compelling.  Brooklyn Prince, the leader of the kids, is seven years old, and she is mesmerizing.

Dafoe, who is nominated for best supporting actor, delivers a dignified, quiet and measured performance, but the film is stolen by Bria Vinatae, who plays the single mother of one of the children. She is a child herself, wholly ill-equipped to raise one of her own, yet fiercely loving and resourceful.

Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) eschews a traditional narrative, opting for a languorous approach that mirrors the hot summer days depicted in the film.  The effect is to embed the viewer with the children and their community, which heightens what you feel for these kids.  Yet, there is not a single maudlin or false note.

Best film of the year.



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.