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4 stars

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I caution you.  I’m a sucker for westerns, especially modern ones, because they are so few and far between. The last good one was Open Range, and that was 15 years ago (I don’t consider the brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to be a traditional western, but you have to go back to 2007 for that one, and the Coen Brothers True Grit from 2011 is a remake, so, it is also exempted).

I also concede that this film is a bit heavy on allegory and peace pipe mumbo-jumbo.  That said, I loved it.  Set in 1892, Christian Bale plays an embittered officer tasked with transporting an Indian chief (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to Montana.  It is a laborious task made even more so to Bale because a decade earlier, Studi massacred Bale’s men, much as Bale massacred many an Indian.  During their trek, they come across a brutalized, in-shock Rosamund Pike, a frontier woman who lost everything to marauding Apache.  Along with a dozen other supporting characters, the group makes it way through the forbidding and harsh land, and God help me for writing these words, but in the doing, they come to an understanding about each other and their past deeds.  Written and directed by hit-or-miss Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), this is a sprawling, expertly shot picture with a heavy dose of melancholy and a serene, mystical side that evokes Terence Malick (in a good way).  Several scenes were deeply affecting, and the acting is committed and mature.

I couldn’t get enough and will gladly suffer the slings and arrows of my position, because you damned cynics ruin everything.

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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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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.

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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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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.