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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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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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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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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.

There’s nothing particularly bad about this biopic of Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder, the fighter who went the distance with Ali (mainly as a human punching bag) and was the inspiration for Rocky.  Liev Schreiber gets to trot out his semi-lovable, Joisy-accented galoot, and at times, you actually feel bad for the guy, a palooka with a heart of tin who is given a taste of the big time and handles it poorly (drugs, booze, women, and perhaps most distressingly, disco).  But you don’t ever really develop an interest in him.

You’ve seen it all before, and even with the exertions of Schreiber, a pasty and portly Jim Gaffigan (as Chuck’s loyal and unctuous sidekick) and Elizabeth Moss (his suffering wife), you end up asking “to what end?”  Or, in Joisy parlance, “What the fuck?”

The film also makes a huge mistake by trying to recapture the Ali-Wepner fight, which feels as if it was held in a community rec center.