Monday, January 15, 2018

FREE TO PUBLISH!!: a review of "The Post"

Screenplay Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
Directed by Steven Spielberg
**** (four stars)

If there is any filmmaker who is able to somehow, someway make the sound of clicking typewriters pulsate with white knuckle intensity and the images of crucial decision making can make a theater erupt in applause, that filmmaker would be none other than Steven Spielberg, the man who has created movie magic for nearly 50 years. With his latest effort, the historical docudrama "The Post," Spielberg proves again that he is not a filmmaker content to rest upon his creative laurels or his immense legacy. He is one who is endlessly inventive, curious, passionate and therefore, ferociously inspired, making his continued output more than worthy and deserving of our attention.

Now that being said, Spielberg's films as of late have been less than impressive to me. Of course, I do not believe that he is even capable of making a "bad" movie due to the enormity of his creativity and sills but even so, I was a tad underwhelmed by the likes of his more cerebral efforts "Lincoln" (2012) and "Bridge Of Spies" (2015) and his rather toothless adaptation of  Roald Dahl's "The BFG" (2016), I will openly admit may have had more to do with the movie he made not at all matching up with the exceedingly more frightening, tougher, exciting movie I had made up in my head when I read that particular book. That being said, something felt a little amiss with my reactions to the films made by a person who is possibly the most influential filmmaker of my life as he was instrumental in introducing me to the wondrous magic of the motion pictures. His recent films have just kept me a bit at arms length despite their unquestionable artistry.

With "The Post," Steven Spielberg has returned with a furiously impassioned roar. Lean, taut, briskly paced while perfectly merging the cerebral and the propulsive, Spielberg has helmed his best film in years, re-confirming his status as one of our living cinematic legends. In a past interview, Steven Spielberg once remarked that if one were to gaze over his complete filmography, one could see that most of the films he has made have either taken place in the past or the future,  where all the while he is commenting upon the present. "The Post" is a history lesson to be certain. But a history lesson that is as up to the minute in 2018 that it could nearly serve as a documentary!

Set in 1971, "The Post" stars Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, Editor-In-Chief of The Washington Post and Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, a newspaper heiress who took over the newspaper after the suicide of her husband and is currently struggling with the balance of her life as a socialite as well as her business responsibilities as she is contemplating making The Washington Post pubic, therefore hopefully shedding the journal's "family paper" image for a wider national reach and profitability. Yet, in her simultaneous affectionate/contentious relationship with Bradlee, the twosome partially spar over the business deal, which would reward in potential greater finances that could assist or hinder the actual journalism at work, .

The Washington Post, already in then President Nixon's cross hairs to the point that they have been refused access to covering his daughter wedding, has been playing catch-up to the likes of The New York Times but their moment to grab the brass ring is evident.

The New York Times' new expose of what would be called "The Pentagon Papers," classified documents spanning three decades and four U.S. Presidents. These documents showcased how every Presidential administration since Truman was involved with the behind-the-scenes political mechanizations of what would become the Vietnam War, and how the United States government knowingly and continuously sent soldiers to fight and die while lying to the American people about our nation's prospects at winning a war that the government, again, knew was unwinnable.

The publication of some of these documents land the New York Times with a court injunction against further publication, an injunction Bradlee wishes to take full advantage of for his paper as he attempts to locate and seize the Pentagon Papers for publication in The Washington Post, risking not only an injunction and possible imprisonment for himself, his writers and Katherine Graham but also the attack of the full fury of the vengeful Nixon administration. 

Steven Spielberg's "The Post" rockets through it race-against-time structure with a MASTER CLASS level of crisp direction, first class storytelling and the exceedingly gifted performances from the entire cast (MVP awards should undoubtedly go to both Bob Odenkirk and Tracy Letts for their equally outstanding work).

Conceptually (as well as taking a trip through my movie addled brain), one could conceivably think of this film as serving as a bit of a prequel to both Alan J. Pakula's classic "All The President's Men" (1976) and Ron Howard's eloquent yet sadly underseen "Frost/Nixon" (2008) and even as a companion piece to both Oliver Stone's hallucinogenic juggernaut "JFK" (1993) and his Shakespearian styled portrait of "Nixon" (1995) plus Pablo Larrain's psychological chamber piece "Jackie" (2016) to even some key elements within Spike Lee's fever dream "She Hate Me" (2004).

Even with the comparisons, "The Post" stands firmly upon its own cinematic feet and to a towering degree, as Spielberg has again taken that historical mirror to present to ourselves signifying that what is past is dangerously prologue. Within a story that concerns itself with government corruption involving the entrenched deception of the America public, a fight for 1st Amendment rights and a maniacal President of the United States more than ready and willing to rip that very Amendment to shreds for his own self-preservation and ravenous hunger for power and control, current events in our 21st century America confirm that we are long past the prologue and have been projected into a through-the-looking-glass existence where newspapers are dying, the devaluation of all news media is continuously rising and the President exists within a post-truth reality. Yet, the fight rages on.

With "The Post," Steven Spielberg presents those (and more) continuous struggles and their necessity for maintaining journalistic integrity combined with an accountability for all of our elected officials while also delivering a powerful elegy for what once was regarding the power and urgency of the print media, when hearing that snap of the morning papers was commonplace and fully desired.

Additionally, Spielberg also delivers a dire warning concerning the still turbulent relationship between journalism and big business, as the 24 hour cable news cycle has fallen into opinion politics at best, and downright sinister and politically driven propaganda at worst, all the while filling our screens with talking heads that really don't say terribly much of value, yet continue speaking in the pursuit of ratings. Just think what our news cycle would be like if all of cable news simply ceased reporting upon President Trump's every flatulent Twitter outrage, ratings be damned. Then, the news would be in control rather than the President provoking the media to follow his lead. Wag the dog indeed...

Yet, "The Post takes us back to a time period when journalists were furiously inspired to  not allow public servants to dictate what could and could not be disseminated to the American public and with Tom Hanks leading the charge, how could we not feel as equally inspired and as driven as the characters surrounding him in the film? 

Hanks' performance, all filled with gruff, chain smoking tenacity, is as magnetic and as effortless as we would expect. Even so, it is one that does arrive with challenging layers so as not to make Ben Bradlee too much of a Kapra-esque hero. Yet, in terms of journalism and the news, Bradlee is perfectly represented as existing upon the right side of history and his gleefulness with the thrill of the chase is palpable--in fact, the moment when he and his colleagues upon up the box containing part of the Pentagon Papers, it is presented with as much holy reverence as the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981)...but without the face melting wrath of God.

I did, however, feel that Hanks and Spielberg did rightfully inject a level of hubris to his pursuit of the truth as the consequences of the Supreme Court's decision h eld potentially dire consequences for himself and his reporters. How much of Bradlee wanted to uncover the truth for the American public and how much of Bradlee wanted to just have the scoop, thus elevating his own personal cache?  In that aspect, Ben Bradlee is not entirety virtuous, and in fact, in another crucial area, he does represent being as part of the problem.

Now, if you have been regular visitors to this blogsite, you have consistently read my critical to even mocking tone directed towards Meryl Streep's ubiquity with Oscar nominations, regardless if the performance in question was truly worthy of recognition or not. Yet, with "The Post," if she is indeed nominated again, it is for a performance that showcases strength and subtlety instead of any show-boating "I AM ACTING!!" hamminess, it would be indeed more than deserved. For my money, what is depicted here is one of Streep's finest performances in some time, a deliberately paced, slow  burn of a performance that provides "The Post" with its additional powerful theme of the rise of women in power in a so-called "man's world."

I did not realize that the real world Katherine Graham was the very first female publisher of a national newspaper, therefore making "The Post" a demonstrably riveting origin story as we are witness to this particular woman, in late middle age, grieving over her husband's suicide and being forced to re-invent her life in ways she most likely never truly conceived for herself.

Meryl Streep delivers a performance of growing confidence, with her own abilities and sense of power. Throughout the film, we observe Katherine Graham from her consistent asking of advice and opinions from the men that surround her life--from accountants, lawyers, political figures, and colleagues including Bradlee himself--or more often, being sidelined by those very same men regarding crucial decision making, all the way to the moments when she indeed wrestles full control--to which the audience I saw the film with burst into applause. And through Streep's unquestionable and revered skills, we can see her evolution step-by-step-by-step.

Working alongside Spielberg (it is stunning to me that these two figures have not collaborated before now) there were two moments in particular that where their cinematic powers congealed so beautifully, nailing moments in time and place so succinctly and mostly, without words. The first moment is a short scene featuring Streep as Katherine walking through a group of women into a closed office office of all men, making her the sole female present. The second moment occurs near the end of the film as Katherine quietly descends down the steps of the Supreme Court to the eyes of the public, most notably a variety of female onlookers. In those brief moments, what I saw was nothing less than the status quo being transformed and therefore, transcended. Essentially, especially in the second moment I described, we were witness to the sight of representation leading to inspiration.

Through the entirety of "The Post," Meryl Streep gives us a portrait of a character on a journey of self-discovery, which ultimately takes her to unprecedented heights. And still, she and Spielberg smartly realized that it would not be enough that she discovers the fullness of her potential. What Katherine Graham discovers is the full content of her character in a world that never asked or even wanted her to define it. But it is indeed a world that would be a better one because of it. "The Post"  illustrates, and completely without any melodramatic tactics, how representation matters, how being in the room, so to speak, can pave ways for more to be in the room and to even own the room itself. 

The arrival of Steven Spielberg's "The Post" at this specific point in time could not have been more perfect, especially as we now live in an age when CNN feels the need to say that an apple is an apple and President Trump can denounce sheer reality, even reality as presented with his own recorded voice, image and words, with a petulant wave of "fake news." That being said, what Spielberg has presented so masterfully is not just a film about journalistic integrity, or the freedom of the press, the constitutional rights of the 1st amendment, especially when it is the duty of the news media to hold our leaders fully accountable for their actions. It is not even just a film about the empowerment and rise of women within a "man's world."

Steven Spielberg's "The Post" is a film about resistance.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

UNPUBLISHABLE: a review of "The Book Of Henry"

Screenplay Written by Gregg Hurwitz
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
* (one star)

Just as with the good movies and especially, the great movies, all bad movies are not the same

There are the films that are bad for no other reason than all of the pieces of the cinematic puzzle just did not merge together in the very best way, regardless of the talent involved. It is as if the stars were simply not aligned. Then, there are the bad movies, where it really depends upon the sense and sensibilities of each, individual viewer, for what is artful to me may be garbage for someone else. And then, there are the movies that just cannot be reasoned with, or rationalized with or can even be saved. The bad movies that just careen off the rails, sometimes spectacularly. Colin Trevorrow's "The Book Of Henry" is one of those bad movies.

Dear readers, there is a strong difference between the badness of a film like "The Mountain Between Us" and "The Book Of Henry," because where the former was one that took a decent concept and executed it poorly, the latter is one that was horrific at conception. Frankly, "The Book Of Henry" is a howler!! The type of bad film where I could not help but to wonder just how the money lenders and powers-that-be read this screenplay and decided to throw money at the project to allow it to hit the silver screen. I am honestly stunned that not one person either before, during or after the filming took a look at what was being made and simply said to Trevorrow, " really need to sit down for this..."

In fact, this film is so terrible that I am almost recommending that you view it anyway just so you can have the experience of witnessing precisely how a movie can go so wrong so immediately, as this one does indeed careen off of the tracks and for two hours, we just get to watch this whole enterprise fall to its destruction in utter disbelief.

"The Book Of Henry" stars Jaeden Lieberher as Henry Carpenter, a genius child unlike any you have seen before...or could stomach. Yes, he is a star student, with a fully accessible adult vocabulary, perspective and worldview that makes him a perfect candidate for copious time spent in a closed, dark hallway locker.

Anyhow, he is the protective big brother to his younger sibling Peter Carpenter (Jacob Tremblay) from the school bully (no problem there), and clearly the "adult" figure in his home life as the boys' single Mother, Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts), a waitress in a local dive restaurant operated by former SNL cast member Bobby Moynihan, as well as aspiring children's book author/illustrator, is essentially only capable of eating sweets and playing violent video games while Henry handles the entirety of the household's finances and bills.

OK... next door to the Carpenters live the Sicklemans, a duo which includes Henry's pretty yet sullen classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler from Lifetime television's "reality" TV car crash "Dance Moms") and her stone-faced stepfather and police commissioner, Glenn (Dean Norris), whom Henry is 100% certain is abusing Christina.

And then, there is the titular book, a journal in which Henry has jotted down all of his seemingly six-figure treehouse Rube Goldberg designs and contraptions, so elaborate they would make Kevin McAllister from "Home Alone" (1990) salivate profusely, plus his even more elaborate plans to save Christina and take down Glenn Sickleman once and for all. 

Now, to a certain degree, what I have just described to you may not sound to be so downright awful. And truth be told, if the film just remained with those plot points, perhaps there could have been a way to make a story like this work. But...this is shockingly not all there is to "The Book Of Henry."

In addition to all that I have described, for whatever insane reasons, Trevorrow has also injected a terminal illness, financial wizardry, a school talent show complete with a solo dance routine (why not?) from Ziegler, a visit to a local, shady gun shop, a suicide, gentle sibling rivalry, an assassination attempt, and even Sarah Silverman as Watts' best friend from the who has clearly stumbled in from a completely different movie. To say that "The Book Of Henry" slapped me silly with jaw dropping disbelief would be an understatement. This thing is straight from the loony bin KA-RAZY!!!

Look, it would be one thing if Henry was gifted with numbers and mathematics but did he have to be a financial genius with a beyond expert's grasp of...Lord, help me...stocks and bonds (!), as he makes all of his wheelings and dealings from the pay phone (!!) located across the street from the school? It would be one thing if Henry was presented as somewhat of a savant or someone who was just pre-naturally wise. But, Henry possesses a level of foresight within this film that is supernatural. I mean--even Dionne Warwick couldn't have known all of the things that Henry is astoundingly able to know the longer this film progresses. "The Book Of Henry" truly contains the "and then this happened" syndrome to the point where the movie as a whole defies all sense of logic, reason, rationality, believability and therefore, any sense of empathy that Trevorrow and his cast are indeed working overtime to try and convey.

Honestly, I do have to hand it to both Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay for trying their best to make heads or tails from this, as they are each gifted young actors as evidenced from Lieberher's work in Theodore Melfi's "St. Vincent" (2014), Jeff Nichols' "Midnight Special" (2016) and Andy Muschietti's "It" (2017) as well as Tremblay's especially powerful performances in both Lenny Abrahamson's "Room" (2015) and Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder" (2017). Miraculously, they both attempt to find a sliver of honest emotion and realism within a film that possesses none of such things. Yet, unfortunately, out of the young cast, only Maddie Ziegler suffers, as she is obviously acting by hairstyle--behind the ears when she is feeling OK, draped completely over her face if she is depressed. Not a terribly good look if this is the film's damsel in distress.

But honestly, Naomi Watts should have known better! Did she lose a bet too? I just cannot believe for a moment that she actually believed in this story! Well, in fairness, maybe she did initially. But, good night nurse, during filming as she is brandishing a sniper rifle, didn't it occur to her that something was seriously amiss. Even her character as conceived is a major problem as she does indeed treat Henry more like a husband than as her 11 year old boy genius son, a family situation when pondered more closely, seems even creepier than the possible goings on next door.

Colin Trevorrow's "The Book Of Henry" is a soft hearted disaster of a movie that just never knows when to quit. Or better yet, it didn't know better than to scrap everything, just start over and make a  better film. That is not to say that this movie is unwatchable. Trust me, it has to be seen to be believed.

But even so, I cannot help but to wonder if this was the reason that Trevorrow lost out the lucrative gig of directing "Star Wars: Episode IX."   Based on "The Book Of Henry," we really dodged a bullet!

Monday, January 1, 2018

CRASH LANDING: a review of "The Mountain Between Us"

Based upon the novel  The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin
Screenplay Written by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe 
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
* (one star)
RATED PG 13 least they didn't eat the dog.

For all of you out there who may have entertained a certain fantasy of being luxuriously enclosed upon a mountaintop with the likes of either Kate Winslet or Idris Elba, then please allow me to vehemently steer you completely away from "The Mountain Between Us."

Woooo-eee is this a terrible movie, one where the survivalist danger in question is flat out arbitrary to the point of being laugh out loud comedic and the so-called love story is even worse. Frankly, both Winslet and Elba, who surprisingly possess zero chemistry, look absolutely miserable throughout the film, and honestly, for all of the scenes where each of them happen to look skywards in anguish, it just felt as if they were each desperately attempting to reach their respective agents telepathically, mentally delivering propulsive tongue lashings lambasting them for ever getting them to enter a project this preposterous and stupidly overwrought. 

Look, I do get it. I am  honestly not trying to be some sort of insufferable "film snob" who just can't go to a movie and have a good time with it. Not everything has to necessarily be "art," so to speak. The problem with a movie like "The Mountain Between Us" is that the execution is so astoundingly poor that I was unable to buy into the fantasy being presented to me whatsoever--even with people as jaw droppingly attractive and charismatic as Kate Winslet and Idria Elba filling every frame of the screen alongside the wintry, mountain vistas. Trust me, dear readers, you have been warned!!

"The Mountain Between Us" stars the aforementioned Kate Winslet as photojournalist Alex Martin and Idris Elba as neurosurgeon Ben Bass, complete strangers both of whom are struggling to find airline travel out of Idaho for a wedding and a crucial surgery, respectively. Unfortunately, due to a severe winter storm, all flights have been cancelled. But hey...the two meet and commiserate about their travel troubles and then decide to...wait for it...charter a plane to their respective destinations.

OK...right here, the film stumbles into its first deep pothole because would you charter a plane when EVERY airline has delayed all of their flights due to dangerously inclement weather? I didn't think so.  Furthermore, when it is revealed that none other than Beau Bridges would be the pilot, Iand even then, he would not even bother to record a flightplan, I was stunned that both Winslet and Elba did not just walk backwards out of the plane hanger, because we all know that Beau Bridges will not last long!

Well...true to form Bridges (who clearly took this role after losing a bet with his brother Jeff) knew the score as he dies from a downright hysterical stroke mid flight causing the plane to crash, leaving only Alex (with an injured leg), Ben and the pilot's unnamed and delightfully happy dog as the survivors.

From there, "The Mountain Between Us" becomes a tale of survival and the threesome are stranded in the frigid wilderness and forced to attempt to make their way back to civilization with all manner of obstacles like nearly falling off of cliffs, facing down hungry mountain lions, descending through cracked ice, lethal frostbite and even more lethal dialogue, contrived situations, arguments and most certainly, their hot blooded attraction towards each other.

Oh boy. Again, I get it. From a fantasy perspective, I can clearly understand the whirlwind of being ensconced with Ms. Winslet or Mr. Elba (myself included--but truth be told, not on a mountaintop as I am an indoor type of person--a dream date with Ms. Winslet at a coffee shop would be heaven, but I digress). By why oh why, did the film have to be so ill conceived from the get-go with completely under-written, one note characters that are flatter than the pages they were written on?

Not for any instant did either Alex or Ben ever feel like real people and since both Winslet and Elba had no real characters to play, I cannot blame them for the shallowness of their performances, which never generated any sense of realism, peril, or even romantic tension.

All we received was Alex's confounding habit of taking photographs while fighting for survival and her pestering of Ben to reveal the nature of his relationship with his wife, which of course is fraught with a pre-fabricated backstory/tragedy that you will see coming a mile away...just like about 70% of the hackneyed dialogue, manufactured.arguments, and preposterous decisions on the part of the characters and filmmakers. Hell, even the potential sexual tension is painfully undercooked because hey, this is a PG 13 film, so a wasted opportunity that was, huh?

Look...this film got to be so ridiculous that I felt the need to entertain myself throughout somehow and it was indeed through the presence of the dog, who even after surviving a face off with that aforementioned mountain lion, conveyed a happy-go-lucky, constantly wagging tail spirit that belied absolutely everything the film was attempting to convey.

In fact, the dog was clearly having so much fun playing in the snow, the filmmakers often entirely forgot about him as he would disappear for long stretches only to re-appear in high spirits as he pranced around Winslet and Elba who were desperately trying to illicit some sense of frozen, near death terror. And so, in addition to wondering if the dog would have to be eaten, I often asked aloud, "Where's the dog????" anytime he mysteriously vanished. Yes, the little things when  faced with a terrible movie.

There's really not much more to say about a movie like "The Mountain Between Us" where not much makes that much sense, let alone the maudlin title. Please, even if you just love staring at either Kate Winslet or Idria Elba or both, just find some photos on these interwebs and gaze away as a still photograph is more compelling than any one moment in this  awful movie.


HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone and may 2018 prove itself to be bountiful in its offerings for all of us...especially when we go to the movies!

For this month, as it always has been for myself and my movie-going activities, January 2018 finds itself to exist as a 2017 wrap-up, as certain end-of-the-year major releases find themselves being widely released during the month.
In addition to Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread," I am also eagerly awaiting the full release of Steven Spielberg's "The Post," a film that feels could not be more timely, even if it were entirely printed upon the front pages of all of our morning papers.

Aside from those two films, I do have another new review in the hopper and beyond even that, I will also begin to reveal my annual Savage Scorecard list of my favorite and least favorite films of the now previous year.

With that, it is time to get myself back to the woodshed, so to speak. So, as always, I ask for you to wish me good health and I will pace myself and hopefully deliver to the best of my abilities. And, of course,once again, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!