4 stars

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I just caught this in its entirety, and I had been thinking about the film in a political sense as well.  For those who might be unfamiliar, this is an Aaron Sorkin adaptation of his stage play, where a callow, dispirited and cynical JAG lawyer (Tom Cruise) is redeemed in his defense of two Marines on trial for the murder of a third after a hazing incident known as a “Code Red.”  The incident was ordered by Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), a rough and ready, cigar chomping patriot, who is content to let the Marines be convicted as collateral damage to a higher purpose (or so he would have us believe).

This a Hollywood vehicle of yore, with big names (Demi Moore was at her zenith here) and bigger speeches, and some of Nicholson’s lines have become ingrained in everyday talk (“You can’t handle the truth!”)

There can be no dispute – Jessup is a villain.  He lets his men hang.  Early on, he ostracizes Moore with a sexual putdown.  He loathes Cruise and his “faggoty white unform” and “Harvard mouth.”  He is even, in a very clunky line at the end, quasi-revealed as an anti-Semite (“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg?” — Weinberg had been sitting at counsel’s table minding his own business)  Jessup is a vain liar, and encases his ambition in the veneer of higher goals.  When you walked out of that film in 1992, you enjoyed Colonel Jessup, but you likely did not endorse him.

Twenty five years later, I got to thinking about Jessup and President Trump.  I have become convinced that a modern audience would walk out of the theater much more kindly disposed to Jessup, even after having had his monumental faults exposed by Cruise.  There would be greater sympathy for his swagger, and his vulgarity and cruelty would be more easily tossed off.  After all, he’s a doer, not some snide lawyer with a “Harvard mouth.”  Indeed, both Jessup and Trump are fixated on a wall (“because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall”).  Ask folks today, “Who is the hero?” and even though Jessup appears to be headed toward disgrace and a court-martial at the end of the film, I’m confident you’d have a near even split.

As the excesses of Trump pile on, seemingly without a dent in 40 to 45% of those who are periodically asked to provide a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I’ve heard any number of explanations, but the most widely disseminated is confirmation of the deplorability of his supporters, reducing a campaign flub to a gaffe (aptly defined by Michael Kinsley as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say”).  If I am right about A Few Good Men, that conclusion walks hand-in-hand with the Rise of Jessup.  The same mouth breathers who would conclude that Jack Nicholson is the hero opted for Trump over Hillary.  The same folks who support a raving narcissist who can say or tweet most anything would stand by a raging Jessup, as he screams, “I’m gonna’ rip the eyes out of your head and puke into your dead skull “  I doubt it is that easy, but I can see the appeal of assuming the dummies and the dark heart of America have finally combined to bring about Nero.

I think, however, that easy conclusion misses a few things.

First, Cruise would probably be respected by the Jessupites, even if loathed.  He bested their champion in the courtroom, and even though he’s a puling fancypants in his dress whites, you gotta’ give him his due.  With regard to Trump, however, I think the deplorables don’t have the same feelings about the forces – Clinton, the media, the punditry – who they feel were and are arrayed against him.  Because they conclude that those forces are every bit as corrupt as Jessup, their fealty remains strong.  As a graduate of the Harvard of the Shenandoah, I get where they are coming from.

Also, Trump, like Jessup, presents himself as not only a doer, but a bulwark against the corrosive forces of the establishment and their collective Harvard mouths.  I mean, three lawyers against a man who stands on the wall?  Come on.  Not even close.  There is a moment in Cruise’s cross-examination that emphasizes the distinction:  “Yeah, but it wasn’t a real order, was it? After all, it’s peace time. He wasn’t being asked to secure a hill or advance on a beachhead.”  That, of course, is the massage of the smart set.  There are orders and then, there are “real orders”, and invariably, the more the order disadvantages the snoots at their cocktail parties, the more it is coincidentally less real.

Perhaps most importantly, Jessup is just simply a helluva lot more entertaining than Cruise.  He has all the best lines, and in an age where entertainment and politics have seamlessly melded, that’s a quality that should not be underestimated.  Jessup and Trump are stars and they positively bask in the freedom to engage in the crudity that leads lessers to the podium,  spouse and dogs at their side, to ask forgiveness.  That hubris laid Jessup low.  But that was a quarter century ago.

As for the film, it holds up okay.  The Sorkin patter is snappy and smart but hadn’t yet been reduced to the gibberish of The West Wing, and Cruise and Nicholson define star power, both giving their all.



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.

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 lassitude 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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Director Andy Muschietti’s knows his way around a spook story, as evidenced by his very creepy Mama, and with the aid of a troupe of incredibly gifted child actors and the can’t miss image of a clown roaming the sewers, he delivers the goods.  The film rocks you with jump scares and terrifying imagery as Pennywise hunts his prey, and Muschietti covers his doomed Maine town in dread.  Yet, the relationships between the children are authentic and sweet, engendering empathy and bolstering a critical plot point in combating the evil that lurks below.

My orthodontist used to have his walls covered by clowns of every shape and size, a decor choice which contributed to my crooked teeth.   In every clown on that wall was a potential Pennywise, a diabolical trickster and eater of souls with a gift for gab that could entice vulnerable kids to their doom.

But enough about me.  Muschietti’s Pennywise is as indelible and monstrous a film character as I’ve seen.

There are a few weaknesses.  The film is too long, and as my son pointed out, they could have done with one less child character.  There are also a few script clunkers, such as when one of the children mentions that the town has six times the national average in missing people, and a higher percentage for kids.  Such a town would be dead, not seemingly thriving.

Last, Stephen King hates adults.  That is all well and good (who doesn’t?), but the conceit is hackneyed.  As with most King stories centered on kids, in It, every adult is cruel, abusive, distant, crazy and/or a molestor, which is meant to underscore the vulnerability of the children, but really, only serves to cheapen the story.

Still, this is well worth the $235 it currently costs to attend a movie.





The first 20 minutes of this movie serve as a primer as to how to get a comic book flick started. Simple, short scenes introduce our characters, several pop hits set the mood for the time (late Vietnam era), and away we go to confront King Kong.  When a Vietnam helicopter pilot sees Kong, he laconically remarks, “is that . . . a monkey? “. Indeed, it is, and he is big and he is angry.

Death and destruction follow, our fearless survivors work assiduously to get off of Kong’s island while at the same time dealing with their own issues, and the entire endeavor is laced with fun, primarily in the form of John C Reilly, who has been abandoned on Skull Island after his fighter went down during World War II. So he’s a little loopy.

It gets a little ragged at the end, and the emotional connect between Kong and his new gal (Brie Larsen) is rushed, but this is loads of fun.  The likes of Zack Snyder should take note. It’s a monkey. A big monkey. Just like Superman and Batman are not real people, there is no need to delve deeply into their anguish, deepest thoughts, and societal implications. Lighten up.

My family took me to this yesterday, and while it lacks the fresh inventive feel of the original, quintessential summer flick, it is still a treat. The sense of humor is intact, the characters remain winning, Dave Bautista’s hilariously literal Drax again steals the picture, and Groot is now Baby Groot, so darling that the most vicious murderers in the galaxy cannot do him in because, as their leader freely admits, “it is too adorable to kill.”  The story is a bit ragged – Peter Quill’s father (Kurt Russell) is introduced and his plan is both overly apocalyptic and not necessarily reliant on the involvement of the Guardians.  The sentiment is also a bit heavy; a lot of pain is expressed within the theme of family interrupted, creating one too many lumps in the throat for a damn Marvel movie.  Still, a lot of fun.