Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Defying Nixon

It’s no big secret in Hollywood that some actors gravitate towards certain directors because they collaborate well together and have great synergy: Robert De Niro/Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp/Tim Burton, Samuel L. Jackson/Quentin Tarantino and Sharlto Copley/Neill Blomkamp just to name a few.  Over the decades Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have quietly developed a rapport that puts them in the same category even if their individual filmographies are impressive on their own by any standard.  The latest Spielberg release, ‘The Post,’ marks the fifth film directed by Spielberg starring Tom Hanks in a major role and proved once again that Hanks/Spielberg is a powerful combo in Tinseltown.
 
Like their previous collaborations ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Bridge of Spies,’ ‘The Post’ is informed by our past, as much a lesson steeped in American history as an exercise in cinematic entertainment.  The subject this time is the leak and subsequent publication of the “Pentagon Papers” that put the final nail in the coffin of the unpopular Vietnam War.  For the uninitiated, the “Pentagon Papers” is a 1967 RAND think tank study commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara which concluded that the Vietnam War is ultimately futile and unwinnable.  Long before the era of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, a patriot (or traitor whistle-blower depending on your political leaning) and former RAND staffer named Daniel Ellsberg managed to smuggle volumes of the study out from under the very noses of his unwitting employers.   ‘The Post’ tells the story of how the New York Times first broke the story but fumbled the ball under intense White House and Justice Department pressure, only for the Washington Post to pick it up and score the winning touchdown.  Okay, enough football analogies already.
 
Anchored by multiple Oscar winners Hanks, Spielberg and Meryl Streep (nine statues among them in case you're wondering), ‘The Post’ certainly has a lot going in its favor.  And it did not disappoint.  The movie gives us much food for thought, such as Freedom of the Press and the First Amendment, the power and responsibility of the “Fourth Estate,” and the perils of the “Imperial Presidency.”  Beyond all the politics, however, this highly competent and well-crafted film also gives us solid and humane characterizations in Hanks’s publisher Ben Bradlee and Streep’s newspaper heiress Kay Graham.  If you thought publishing the “Pentagon Papers” was an easy decision to make that didn’t require much consideration and hand-wringing, think again.
 
Grade: A
 
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The Poker Princess

The rise-and-fall true story of Olympic freestyle skier-turned-poker club hostess Molly Bloom is brought to life in ‘Molly’s Game,’ acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut featuring Jessica Chastain, hands down the finest looking redhead working in Hollywood today.  Adapted from the memoirs by the same title, ‘Molly’s Game’ provides us with a fascinating--if not entirely scandalous--glimpse into the world of high‑stakes underground poker for the rich, famous and spoiled (that last description is reserved for "Player X" aka Tobey Maguire as portrayed by Michael Cera in this film by the way).
 
Even as the real Molly Bloom is raven-haired and might be better played by, say, Olivia Munn resemblance-wise, Chastain’s portrayal is at once compelling and mesmerizing, imparting a depth and complexity to Molly in a performance that’s truly Oscar-worthy.  And "good golly miss molly!" was she drop-dead gorgeous in this movie, exuding a sheer come-hither sexiness that oddly reminds me of the “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” cartoon character Jessica Rabbit from the 1988 animated film ‘Who framed Roger Rabbit?’  It’s undoubtedly part of the reason (other than her brains and business savvy of course) how Molly became so successful running the “world’s most exclusive and decadent man-cave,” as she so eloquently put it.  Idris Elba also delivered one of his better dramatic performances as Molly’s attorney after she found herself a pawn in the government’s attempt to force her to tell all and surrender the secrets of her “little black book” so-to-speak.
 
Propulsive, smart and (oh, did I also mention?) sexy, ‘Molly’s Game’ is as intoxicating as the addictive game of chance and bluff it depicts, a guilty pleasure of the highest order.  In some ways this film is similar to other real life tales as ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ ‘War Dogs’ and ‘American Made,’ proving once again that, in spite of the usual Hollywood embellishments and overblown exaggerations, screenplays mined from real life stories can be just as interesting as fictional ones.
 
Grade: A
 
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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Demon with the Skeleton Key

‘Insidious: The Last Key’ is the fourth and perhaps final installment of the horror franchise that had made over $370 million dollars at the worldwide box office on a combined budget of just $18 million in the first three films.  Conceived by director James Wan and writer/producer/actor Leigh Whannell, who are no strangers to low-budget horror (they also gave us the ‘Saw’ franchise), TLK is virtually guaranteed to turn a healthy profit for its producers with its modest $10 million budget even as the franchise runs out of steam and falls victim to diminishing returns.
 
Like the much maligned ‘Insidious: Chapter 3,’ TLK is a prequel rather than a sequel.  With main stars Patrick Wilson (now one-half of the even more successful ‘The Conjuring’ franchise along with Vera Farmiga) and Rose Byrne out, TLK focuses on the paranormal psychologist/demonologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and the comic-relief “ghost-hunting” duo of Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) as they return to Elise’s childhood home to exorcise a malevolent supernatural entity and in the process rescue her pretty young niece from the demon’s spindly clutches in the ghostly dimension known as “The Further” (I guess “The Beyond” sounds too cliché).
 
TLK isn’t really all that scary or compelling for that matter, but that had more to do with a more-of-the-sameness in this latest offering than anything else.  While the franchise had arguably run its course with ‘Insidious: Chapter 3,’ we can’t deny that there’s still an appetite for this type of movies (a mixture of traditional western haunted house flicks and oriental J-horror) and can hardly fault the producers for not turning down such easy money.
 
Grade: C

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The Cheapskate Billionaire

British director Ridley Scott is famously known for historical and sci-fi blockbusters such as ‘Gladiator,’ ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner,’ but occasionally he takes on films that one would associate more with his late brother (and director) Tony Scott, if for no other reason than for a change of pace.  So it is that after his recent somewhat ho-hum extension of the Alien universe in ‘Alien: Covenant,’ his latest project turned out to be a crime thriller based on a true story, the kidnapping for ransom of oil magnate J. Paul Getty’s teenage grandson in Italy back in 1973.
 
For all the last-minute scrambles and reshoots thanks to the Kevin Spacey (who originally played Getty) sexual harassment debacle that took place in November last year, ‘All the Money in the World’ came off as well as one had any right to expect.  Veteran Christopher Plummer filled in admirably for Spacey in the role of the frugal J. Paul Getty, and scenes replacing Spacey (except for some wide shots) reportedly took only a matter of days to reshoot.  Along with superb performances from Mark Wahlberg (as Getty-advisor and troubleshooter Fletcher Chase) and notably Michelle Williams (as the mother of Getty’s grandson), ‘All the Money in the World’ proved to be one of Scott’s more critically acclaimed efforts in recent memory, perhaps good enough for him to secure an Oscar nom in the Best Director category.
 
If you sense a “…but” coming, you are absolutely correct.  Notwithstanding its current 77 percent “certified fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I found the movie to be somnolently paced and a bit of a bore.  It likely had something to do with the film’s misleading trailer (yeah, I got fooled by a trailer again, see 'Downsizing' below), which led me to expect a fast-paced thriller filled with action and international intrigue.  While ‘All the Money in the World’ may be well-crafted and competently made, its lack of tension and suspense ultimately couldn’t keep me interested enough in spite of the fine performances from its talented cast.

Grade: B
 
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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Honey, I shrunk myself (but you didn't!)

The preview trailer of Matt Damon’s new movie, ‘Downsizing,’ is rather misleading.  We are led to believe that it’s an oddball comedy or dramedy, which is supported by its inclusion of SNL alumni Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis.  What indie auteur Alexander Payne’s (‘Election,’ ‘Sideways,’ ‘The Descendants’) new film turned out to be is quite different, as it segues into headier and more serious themes such as (gasp!) environmentalism and the true meaning of happiness.
 
Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, a middle-aged “average guy” and workplace therapist by profession who’s stuck in a bit of a financial rut, so he and his wife Audrey (Wiig) made the momentous and life-changing decision to “downsize” (an established medical procedure resulting from a Norwegian scientific breakthrough which reduces one’s physical size to roughly 5” tall) after seeing so many people living happily and comfortably as small people.  When the time came, Audrey backed out at the last minute (not a spoiler if you’ve seen the trailer), leaving him on a proverbial limb and on his own.  His life seemingly shattered and without purpose, Paul must now adapt to his new reality and find new meaning in his life “living small.”
 
At first, I was furious that ‘Downsizing’ turned my expectations on its head by transforming from a comedy to a “serious” polemic on conserving our environment (it’s no accident that the new and improved Paul has a smaller footprint) and being kind to those less fortunate.  But as Paul’s journey of redemption and self-discovery unfolds, I find myself engrossed in his story and the people he crossed paths with, be it the Eastern European playboy played by Christoph Waltz or the Vietnamese dissident forced into downsizing played by Hong Chau in a bold and eye-opening performance.  It ultimately won me over by daring to be different and playing with our expectations, something that’s all too rare in a Hollywood that prefers to play it safe.

Grade: A 
 
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The Last Pitch

The a capella songbirds of the Barden Bellas reunite for one last hurrah in ‘Pitch Perfect 3,’ the third and thankfully final installment of a trilogy that’s been fresh out of ideas since the original surprise hit back in 2012.  That’s the thing with surprise “sleepers” that exceed expectations critically and commercially; we can expect sequel(s) that in the vast majority of cases fail to equal—much less surpass—the original.  PP3 is only the latest example of forced and unwanted trilogies, but we can hardly fault them for trying from a strictly business standpoint.
 
PP3 picks up sometime after PP2 and finds the Bellas out of their league in a competition against seasoned professional bands (with instruments) for the opportunity to perform as part of an overseas USO tour hosted by DJ Khaled.  Unlike PP1 and PP2, however, there isn’t much of a contest this time because all the singing and improv-ing took a backseat to an unexpected action-comedy script centered on “Fat Amy” (Rebel Wilson) and her estranged criminal dad (John Lithgow).  This ill-conceived diversion sucked away much of what made the original (and PP2 to a lesser degree) so charming and delightful because PP3 made for a poor action-comedy.
 
Like other unnecessary sequels, it is probably unavoidable that PP3 would have suffered from the “law of diminishing returns” no matter what, but it didn’t have to go out with such a depressing note.  The only notable musical performance in the entire film was an unimaginative cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic.”  While I wasn’t expecting much out of PP3, at least I was hoping for some decent a capella singing.  Sadly even that was too much to ask.

Grade: C-

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Never give up, never surrender

There is no greater embodiment of British steadfastness and defiance against Adolf Hitler than Winston Churchill, the rotund cigar-chomping prime minister responsible for steering England through her “darkest hour” in the early days of World War II, a time when Germany’s war machine and blitzkrieg through Europe seemed well-nigh unstoppable.  British director Joe Wright’s Churchill biopic ‘Darkest Hour,’ based on a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, sought to capture the essence of the man as well as the public and backroom politicking which took place at a time when negotiations (“appeasement”) and the pursuit of peace at the cost of British honor would appear to be the easy way out.
 
It is widely accepted in Hollywood that one role can often define a career, and this is surely the case for veteran actor Gary Oldman, who delivered the performance of his lifetime as Winston Churchill.  Oldman had always been a somewhat underappreciated method actor whose previous roles failed to fully do justice to his abilities, but ‘Darkest Hour’ gave him the perfect vehicle to showcase his talents, resulting in a bravura performance that will likely earn him an Oscar nod (if not outright win) in the Best Actor category next February.
 
While ‘Darkest Hour’ will no doubt appear stuffy and slow to younger viewers who regard history and biopics as a bit of a bore, I find it to be an excellent snapshot of World War II history and a fascinating character study of one of Britain’s greatest political figures.  Even as a WWII buff I found the movie to be enlightening, as I didn’t know just how close even Churchill was to giving in to the political pressures from Halifax and Chamberlain to make peace with Hitler during the Dunkirk disaster.

Grade: A
 
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