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2 stars

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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!

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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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A movie only an Irishman could love. I don’t know what to say. John Ford’s classic starts off as a cartoon, with Irish folk so spritely and impish you half expect a pot o’ gold around every corner. They are there to welcome Yank John Wayne, who comes to the land of his birth and immediately falls for spinster Maureen O’Hara. I expect she was supposed to play as a fiery and obstinate redhead, but really, she’s the first truly bipolar heroine in American film. At no point is she satisfied, and poor Wayne has to subjugate himself again and again for this loon. To the point he is labeled a spineless coward, primarily due to O’Hara’s chemical imbalance.

Wayne’s reticence is borne of a dark secret (the flashback provides the few memorable, even iconic, images in Ford’s film). And Wayne is surprisingly good in the role. But he’s stuck in a film with so many bizarre caricatures, it seems especially cruel to see him work.

There’s humor here, and some sweetness, but the picture doesn’t travel well, unlike other films that seem out of time, like Gone With the Wind. There’s also a strange mix of lush photography of the countryside and just awful soundstage footage too clumsy for its year (1952).

The lesson is also a little peculiar.  Let your harridan of a psychotic wife drive you to violence, with an entire drunk and backward town offering a stick to beat her with, and she’ll finally have sex with you.  Actually, that’s really the best part of the picture, and for all its faults, what makes it kitschy fun.

Good to see a young Jack MacGowran, the director Burke Dennings (the one who got his head twisted completely around) in The Exorcist.

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.

In John Wick, the Mob tried to take the man’s car and they killed his puppy.  In response, he killed all of them.  Hundreds.  Everywhere.  It was gloriously simplistic and fun.

This time around, we delve deeper into John Wick’s criminal world, where he has a debt to pay pursuant to a criminal code, and there is an entire bad guy underworld and ruling structure, with politics, and apparently, 75% of the folks walking the streets of New York City are potential assassins.  More explication makes for a lesser film, and with the shootouts essentially the same as in the first picture, it’s pretty blah.

Spoiler – the new dog does not die.

 

The sequel to Prometheus, this is essentially that movie but shorn of all of “the beginning of man” mumbo jumbo and its hilarious inconsistencies/stupidities (I dug Prometheus, even though, in retrospect and after viewing this take-down, I felt a little ashamed):

In Covenant, a colonizing ship makes its way to the new planet, hyper-sleep is interrupted (note to self – no matter what sci-fi film you are in, hyper-sleep is a risky proposition) and rather than schlep to the first destination, our crew is enticed to another planet that just showed up on the horizon, one just perfect for colonization.  It’s almost too good to be true.  I mean, what could be out there?

Ridley Scott has a few decent scares and the plot moves, but the film is terribly derivative (hyper sleep went bad in Planet of the Apes, the poisonous Eden  is an old Star Trek, and synthetics getting too big for their intellectual britches is the sci-fi version of “it’s quiet out there . . . Yea.  Too quiet”) and adds nothing to the series.  And while I like Danny McBride, he’s not quite ready for dramatic, “just lost my wife” roles, and he’s too pudgy to be running around with a gun.  I thought one of the few benefits of hyper-sleep was weight loss?

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The ridiculous premise of this movie, and the ensuing byzantine plot, are so audacious that it almost makes up for being such a piece of crap. Ben Affleck is an accountant. But not your everyday accountant. He is autistic, but has had the more extreme manifestations of that condition beaten out of him by his rigid, military father. Accordingly, he can function, and function he does. He has millions of dollars. He owns a Jackson Pollock. He has gold bullion. He can shoot a watermelon from a mile away.

He works in a strip mall as an accountant, when he is not doing the books for local farmers, he is doing them for  large, dirty multinational corporations while ratting out their wrongdoing to the Department of the Treasury.

The only really good things I can say about this movie are that it is watchable in an aghast, mouth open kind of way, and Affleck, playing a character who is struggling to convey emotion, almost appears to be on the verge of laughing out loud every scene. And every scene gets progressively funnier and funnier.

It’s terrible but marginally entertaining.