The Post (2017): Eerily Relevant (Review)

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The Post is a biopic that deals with a governmental coverup and a president who bans reporters from the Washington Post from the White House and it seems eerily relevant. Despite being set in the early 1970’s, the film feels all too familiar. With the current climate in America and a POTUS that screams about fake news at the drop of the proverbial hat, the film seems almost prophetic.

Co-written by Liz Hannah  and Josh Singer and directed by repeat Oscar winner Steven Spielberg (owner of no less than three golden statues) The Post covers a time period of American history where scandal erupted within a tight window, encapsulating the Vietnam war as well as Watergate. The country was reeling from student protests and ever increasing numbers of young men were being sent into a war that was unpopular with the public. 

Spielberg’s biopic drama takes a leaf from other films dealing with this time period in America like “All the President’s Men” and has more than a little in common with the 2015 “newspaper film” Spotlight. All these films deal with coverups and a government, or powerful agency, trying to keep the truth from the public.

At its base, The Post is about Kay Graham (played by Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a huge brand name newspaper. It is also about freedom of the press, the right to protect sources and how the press serve the people and not the government. (Something the current POTUS seems to have either forgotten or never learned.)

Apart from the story itself, the film benefits from two masters interacting seamlessly in their scenes together. Streep and co-star Tom Hanks work brilliantly as examples of just how actors should work with one another. Their characters mesh perfectly and it is not too much to say that one could watch these two read their laundry list and still be enthralled.

There are a number of familiar faces in this film: Bob Odenkirk and Alison Brie from “The Disaster Artist” and Michael Stuhlbarg (from “The Shape of Water“). Pat Healy, Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson are part of a cast that includes “Hostiles” actor Jesse Plemons. Spielberg has gathered a group of highly capable artists to deliver his take on the 1970’s threat to the American press. 

The Post is trotted out like a thriller, all tense music and heightened emotions, and one does feel the tension behind the “true” storyline. Hanks and Streep prove that “less is more” with their wonderfully restrained performances, as does Odenkirk.

Everyone plays their parts perfectly and the sets, along with the costumes, throws one right back into the late 1960’s and early ’70’s. This is a film that works brilliantly on many different levels.

Spielberg’s direction, the performances of his cast and the story itself literally come together for a perfect Oscar sweep: Best Film, Screenplay and performance can almost be seen as fait accompli. Streep and Hanks for the top award and Odenkirk for best supporting actor seems likely with a few nods to the rest of a more than capable cast.

The Post may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a solid 5 star effort that keeps the audience glued to the screen. At just under two hours the movie cracks on with a pace that may not be adrenaline charged throughout but it definitely does not drag or bore.

The film will hit cinemas with a limited release on 22 December and a broader run 12 January 2018. Check this one out, it is an obvious Oscar contender and it manages to tick all the right boxes.

The Disaster Artist (2017): “The Room” Behind the Scenes Tribute (Review)

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The Disaster Artist is one part homage to a director who has more than a little in common  with Ed Wood, one part celebration of someone whose dream reaches a surprising fruition and one part celebration of “The Room.” This behind the scenes tribute to one of the world’s worst films captures the innate weirdness of Tommy Wiesau as auteur.

The film is based on Greg Sestero’s retelling of everything that went into the making of the 2003 cult favorite; a film so bad that audiences took it to their collective bosom and began to worship the atrocity as a delicious comedy.

Directed by James Franco from a screenplay penned by Scott NeustadterMichael H. Weber, Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist is as funny as it is difficult to watch, in places.  The story of how a complete novice, to whom English is a shaky second language, manages to make a movie and pour enough money into the venture to ensure Oscar qualification is entertaining.

“The Room” (the film made by Wiesau) was so monumentally bad that it became a cult favorite and the start of Franco’s “behind the scenes” film has a few celebs from the business explain their fascination with the movie. Even if one has not seen the original, which Franco manages to match shot for shot – several times, The Disaster Artist is funny.

Seth Rogen plays the only character who appears to have any experience making movies and Dave, brother of James, plays Sestero, Wiesau’s object of devotion and the other star of “The Room.” Zac Efron has a cameo as the gun toting thug and the delicious Alison Brie is Amber, Sestero’s girlfriend.

(Ari Graynor, Megan MullallyJosh Hutcherson, Bob Odenkirk, Randall Park and veteran Aussie actress Jacki Weaver round out the cast in a most satisfactory and fun “spot the face” way. These familiar faces really make the film seem like a labour of love.)

It is Amber’s entrance that clarifies Tommy’s “obsession” with Greg and causes the first of many cracks to show in the two men’s relationship.  There are a number of cameos in the film.  Melanie Griffith plays Jean Shelton and  Sharon Stone plays Hollywood agent Iris Burton. The delightful Lauren Ash plays the florist.

Cameo appearances aside, The Disaster Artist can be seen as much more than a biopic about a Polish mystery figure who wants to make and star in movies. It is about tenacity winning out over lack of experience and, somewhat ironically, seems to prove that any moron with enough money can indeed make a movie.

The one thing that shines through is that Tommy knows nothing about making films. He manages to write a screenplay but has to rely upon his hired “experts” to make the film happen. Rogen’s character and the DP both run the two cameras, one of which is a high definition video camera, and try to instill a little realism into the 2003 film.

The Disaster Artist is more like “The Little Train That Could.” The end of the film shows Wiesau, Sestero and the rest of the cast and crew attending the film’s premiere. At the end of the viewing the audience stand spontaneously and give the auteur a standing ovation. The message being that despite the film being funny for all the wrong reasons, Wiesau has managed to entertain his targeted audience. As a result, his little film makes a new kind of history.

Franco does a brilliant job as director and with his portrayal of the rather odd Tommy Wiesau shows that he can really wear multiple hats successfully. (His character Tommy, the real one,  actually makes an appearance toward the end of the post film credits and interacts with “himself” – Franco’s version of Wiesau.)

The Disaster Artist may not be Oscar material but it is funny and hits those parts that many films fail to reach. A real 4.5 star effort that tickles that funny bone while simultaneously pulling off some brilliant cringeworthy moments. It is in cinemas now and well worth the price of admission.

Thelma (2017): Low Key Norwegian “Carrie” With a Twist (Review)

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Co-written and directed by Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt was the other writer who helped on the  screenplay, Thelma is a slow paced, almost languid twist on Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Starring the achingly beautiful Eili Harboe, this suspenseful horror film includes key elements that are present in King’s tale of repression, telekinesis and religion.

The film can also be seen as being influenced by the Richard Matheson tale “It’s a Good Life.” This Twilight Zone story (directed by James Sheldon) dealt with a young boy on a farm who holds his “terrified family” hostage with his incredibly powerful mental ability. The lad, played brilliantly by a young Billy Mumy, can literally “think” someone out of existence if they annoy him.

Thelma has mental powers but they have been repressed with a brand of zealous religion practiced by her family. When the girl goes off to college and starts to fall in love, the power re-emerges with a vengeance. Just before leaving her family, Thelma (Harboe) has a seizure and these become more prevalent at school.

We see the young woman cautiously spreading her wings as she meets Anja, played perfectly by Kaya Wilkins) and as the two become infatuated with one an other, Thelma has an increase in seizures and some disturbing visions/dreams.  Eventually she goes to a doctor for help and discovers that her grandmother, whom she believed was dead, suffers from the same problem. 

After being tested for epilepsy, Thelma tracks her grandmother down and starts remembering a tragic event from her childhood. Her father, Henrik Rafaelsen, a general practitioner, starts treating Thelma as her mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) uneasily watches from the sidelines. 

Thelma can be seen as a loss of innocence film, or a “coming of age” tale. Regardless of how the viewer opts to interpret this story, it is beautifully filmed and splendidly executed. At just under two hours, the film is a long one, but it never bores or drags.

The sequences where Thelma seeks help from the medical community do crawl but despite this, interest in the young protagonist does not wander. Trier gives us a plot and storyline that teases with flashbacks and ethereal connections between Anja and Thelma.

Harboe as the naive Thelma gives us just the right amount of wonder and dread as she starts to grow up outside the influence of her strict parents. We learn, as the film progresses, just why Trond and Unni keep close tabs on Thelma; they are already aware of what she is capable of doing.

The horror here is very low key. However,there are moments where it strikes fear right into the heart of the audience. These are not jump worthy moments by any means but the instances, a drowning and a moment underneath an icy lake, reduce us to a primal horror that stays long after the moment appears on screen.

Thelma, unlike “Carrie,” gives us a protagonist that is not a victim but is, rather, a young woman who has lived a sheltered life. There is a reason behind her earlier protected existence. This helps us to develop an empathy with the young girl and her increasing confusion.

This is a full 5 star film that grabs the viewer and draws them slowly into the world of Thelma. Norwegian, indeed Slavic films in general, are, at the moment, top notch and well worth sitting through, despite having subtitles. Check this one out as soon as you can.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer(2017): Stilted and Wooden Horror (Review)

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While the story of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is interesting and different, the execution leaves much to be desired. Leaden acting, wooden dialogue and line deliveries that feel stilted all make this odd horror film feel fake and throws one out of the tale being told.

Colin Farrell appears to be sleepwalking through his role as a surgeon whose drunken mistake costs a man his life. Despite speaking in his “native tongue” the Irish actor  comes across as disinterested, bland and disaffected.  The entire cast, with the exception of Nicole Kidman and Alicia Silverstone suffer from the lackluster delivery that writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos seems to expect in his films. 

In The Lobster (Another Farrell vehicle.) the dialogue was equally unenthusiastic but with the surrealistic setting and theme it almost fit. Here, in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it serves to take the viewer out of the film and it destroys whatever ambiance is needed to sell the horror of the situation.

The film shows young Martin (Irish actor Barry Keoghan) insinuating himself into Dr. Murphy’s life. Murphy accepts the young man  and introduces him to his wife Anna (Kidman), daughter Kim and his son Bob. In return, Murphy is introduced to Martin’s mum, the widow of the man that Murphy  killed.

(Alicia Silverstone plays the disturbed and somewhat twitchy woman in a delicious cameo performance that outshines everyone else in the film.)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer could have been a masterpiece. The setting, the use of discordant music and an interesting plot could have worked brilliantly had the performances not taken away from the film. Lanthimos destroys whatever affect the weirdness of the tale could have had by having his actors throw the viewer out of any disturbing moments.

The characters themselves do not appeal either. Kidman’s Anna is self serving and cold. The surgeon appears to lack any sort of feeling and their kids are  unlikeable. To be fair this is down more to the delivery of their lines rather than any particular shortcomings of the script.

We never learn too much about Murphy or his family before Martin starts his attack. For example, there is no reason given for his insistence that his wife lay stock still during sex and we are reluctantly given the backstory between the surgeon and Martin.

The film shambles along with too little information and not enough time spent on the two main characters. Interaction between Martin and the Murphy family follows the same wooden direction as the dialogue and we never buy into any of the emotions, or the lack thereof,  being shared with the audience.

When things start going wrong with Murphy’s children we literally do not care. Neither child comes across well like their father they suffer from a lack of emotion or nuance in any of their lines. It is as if removing anything remotely resembling a personality was top priority of the director.

The fact that Silverstone, in her “blink and you’ll miss it cameo,” comes out head and shoulders above the rest of the cast makes one wonder if Lanthimos allowed someone else to helm the picture that day.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer could have been a 5 star effort. Instead it is a dull and shambolic attempt at psychological horror that fails abysmally. Give this one a miss…

 

The Shape of Water (2017): Del Toro’s Return to Form (Review)

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Guillermo del Toro returns to form with The Shape of Water. This 2017 offering, co-written by del Toro with Vanessa Taylor, stars Sally Hawkins as the mute girl who befriends the creature. Michael Shannon is the villain, Richard Jenkins; the reluctant accomplice and Octavia Spencer the plucky sidekick. Doug Jones plays the South American amphibious creature/god.

The theme of this film is water, naturally, as both the environment for the underwater dweller worshipped by the locals as some sort of god and as the background for most of the events of the film. The creature bears more than a little resemblance to “monster” in  The Creature of the Black Lagoon but unlike good old Roscoe Browning’s creature, this one has no zipper running up its back.

Jones’ creature looks real and, even more importantly, plausible. Hawkins is the isolated cleaning woman trapped in a 1960’s world of racism, class structure and a world run by men for men. Women are second class citizens and one who has a speech impediment is on the very bottom of the totem pole.

Del Toro gives us a heroine that we fall immediately in love with. A woman whose existence is full of routine but who has the soul of a dancer, a singer and a romantic.  Although part of her daily preparations for work include industriously masturbating in a tub of water, deep down, Elisa Esposito has enough imagination to fill in many blanks in her life.

Jenkins is Giles, her next door neighbor. He is a closeted gay, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, an artist and he is desperately trying to make ends meet and fall in love. Spencer is Zelda, the co-worker who looks out for her mute friend, and translates when required.

Michael Shannon is Strickland; the man who captured the creature and transported it to the scientific facility where it will be studied. Strickland is also, somewhat ironically, a very cold fish. He is humorless, vicious and utterly, it seems, without feeling.

Del Toro’s film asks what would have happened if the creature of the Black Lagoon had been captured at a time when the Russian’s were winning the space race and the Cold War was running full steam ahead. (Michael Stuhlbarg plays a crucial part as a scientist who is not all he seems.)

With The Shape if Water del Toro returns to his roots. The film has all the dark and terrible beauty of Pan’s Labyrinth and the whimsy of The Devil’s Backbone. We fall for the story and all its characters hook, line and sinker. The creature is not terrifying at all, we feel as much empathy as curiosity and Elisa’a inexplicable yearning and interest in the thing is not mystifying at all.

Doug Jones has given us a performance full of nuances, emotions and a certain depth that has never been seen before in a “creature feature.”

The film is classed as an adventure, fantasy, drama and it is indeed all three. It can also be seen as a romance as well as a heart pounding thriller. There are scenes that keep the viewer on the edge of their seat;  breath held as they silently urge the heroes on and others that fill the heart with warmth.

The Shape if Water has sets that are reminiscent of the underwater city in Bioshock and water does feature in practically every scene. Del Toro makes old films an important part of the story and the cast is perfect. Shannon gives us a man we love to hate and when the climax of the film arrives we are satisfied with his fate.

If there is any complaint at all about this marvelous feature it would be that the scars on Elisa’s neck are obvious from the first time we see them and we know that they will provide some sort of plot twist.

This is a full 5 star film that delivers across the board. The story, sets, costumes and performances all come together in a dark bit of art that touches the viewer’s heart. Catch this one when it comes out in the cinema (December 8) and get caught up in Guillermo del Toro’s return to form.