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I stumbled on this Saturday, and it took some time to figure out what I’d gotten myself into.  Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is a relic from the civil rights era, still fighting the good legal fight with his more prestigious mentor in a musty LA office.  While the mentor is the dazzle, Israel is the quirky brain.  But soon, like Bumpy in American Gangster, the mentor dies, and Israel is set adrift.  The firm is closed and now, Israel has to fend for himself, eventually taking a job with a criminal defense mill helmed by a slick former student of the mentor (Colin Farrell) whose firm has gone all corporate and Johnnie Cochran.  Will Roman kowtow to “the man” and play the game or will his deep conviction to the plight of the downtrodden and forgotten snap him back from the pit of doom?

That’s essentially the story, and it is told in a clunky and plodding manner.  Writer-director Dan Gilroy tries to give it some zest, but the only vigor comes from the fact that Israel is clearly on the spectrum (this must be a thing now; even Ben Affleck has donned the autism robes).  This allows Washington to mug and riff, which he did well enough to earn a Best Actor nod, but his work is in the service of an at-best pedestrian and at-worst mind-numbingly boring tale.  Gilroy’s last effort – Nightcrawler – was a sharp, edgy commentary on tabloid culture.  It’s a shame he followed it up with this schmaltzy morality tale.

 

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I first heard about Molly Bloom in an NPR interview when she was promoting her movie.  Bloom was being questioned by an insipid interviewer who, naturally, tried to shoehorn her entire experience into the gender feminist blender.  Bloom was politely having none of it:

MARTIN: But, you know, as Jessica Chastain plays you as like you have kind of ice water in your veins. And, you know, Aaron Sorkin has been criticized in the past for having female characters who weren’t fully fleshed out or for feeling as if – there are those who say, look, these are a man’s idea of what women are like, OK. And I wonder, did you feel as tough as Jessica Chastain makes you out to be?

BLOOM: You know, it’s interesting. I didn’t get the sense watching Jessica that she has ice water in her veins. I get the sense that she has a lot of humanity, that she cares deeply about doing the right thing and about protecting people. I really didn’t experience her as cold. I experienced her as ambitious. And I think that we get our lines crossed oftentimes when we see an ambitious woman and we just label them cold.

MARTIN: I’m interested in you actually because she’s made up. I’m interested in you. Do you see yourself as having, like, ice water in your veins or did you – how do you see yourself?

BLOOM: I’ve always been very ambitious and very determined and very compassionate at the same time.

MARTIN: There are a lot of these stories right now about power, masculinity and abuse. You wrote your book years ago. The movie was in production – has been in production long before these current stories came out. But I wonder, you find yourself worried for these women in a way – does that make sense? – in a way that you might not have a year ago before we knew what some of the other things that were going on. Does that make sense? Do you understand what I’m saying?

BLOOM: Oh, I think there’s a lot of that. I want to make a pretty clear distinction here because my experience was of a different sort. It was just being disenchanted and being very sick of oppressive men and having to play by their rules. You know, there wasn’t this abuse, you know, that we’re seeing, but there was just this unfair sort of unjust application of power that I just constantly felt like I was coming up against, from growing up with a hard-driving sort of type A father and coaches and bosses and then players and then government.

But I also never really saw myself as a victim there because, for me, it just felt, you know, like that was a powerless situation. I tried to circumvent it. I tried to find my way around it. But I think it’s a brave new world that we’re seeing, that we really can have a voice. And we don’t have to do this alone necessarily. There’s clear power and progress from coming together.

I was immediately a fan, and as played by Jessica Chastain in this Aaron Sorkin written and directed movie, Bloom’s measured strength is what stays with you.  She is a driven would-be Olympian, guided and plagued by a driven and confrontationally intelligent father (Kevin Costner) and after a career-ending injury, she utilizes that strength not only to become a success in hosting high stakes poker games, but in eventually striking out on her own, escaping the reach of her early cruel and/or mercurial sponsors.  When it all goes bad, and she is indicted primarily for her association rather than conspiracy with criminals, she maintains the confidences of her “clients” (powerful men who shared their personal foibles and sins with her as a confidante) even as her defense attorney (Idris Elba) implores her to make a deal that will exchange those confidences to keep her out of prison.  Her resolve is both believable, impressive and rarely depicted in female characters in film.  She is the quintessential feminist hero, both cognizant of the powers and pitfalls of her gender, but ultimately, a tough and independent player educated, literally, by the school of hard knocks.  Her persona is neatly demonstrated in an  exchange with Elba on the raising of his daughter, Stella:

 Elba:  Can I ask you a question? You think I’m too hard on her?

 Bloom:  I met a girl when I first moved to L.A. she was 22. Someone arranged through a third party to spend a weekend with her in London.  You know what she got?  For the weekend?

 Elba:  Five grand?

 Bloom:  A bag. A Chanel bag she wanted. Whatever you’re doing with Stella, double it.

A captivating, smart picture.  A little overwritten (it is Sorkin, so there are going to be some speeches), but other than that, highly recommended.

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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.