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.

A Walk in the Woods (2015) Snail Paced Recollections (Review)

Robert Redford, Nick Nolte

Based on the Bill Bryson book of the same name, “A Walk in the Woods” follows a 1994 (the book was published in 1998)  attempt by the then mid-forties Bryson and an old pal (Stephen Katz) to walk the Appalachian trail.  Robert Redford optioned the tale with his old buddy Paul Newman in mind  as costar. Sadly, Newman died and the project languished a bit before Nick Nolte came on board.

Directed by Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) with a screenplay co-written by Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman based on the Bryson book;  “A Walk in the Woods” is pedestrian by nature. The  film moves at a  70 year old’s pace (although in the film, both Katz and Bryson are in their 60s) and this gentle comedy amuses despite its creaky pace.

There are some impressive pedigrees attached to the feature. British actress Emma Thompson (a double Oscar winner), Mary Steenburgen (another Oscar winner) and Redford (yet another winner of the little gold chap) and Nolte (an Oscar nominee).  With such an august  cast there can little to complain about in terms of performance.

The delightful Kristen Schaal (The Last Man on Earth, 30 Rock) is brilliant as the companion from Hell and she provided a bit of obvious comic relief.

“A Walk in the Woods” is a leisurely tale of two  older men who want to do something of significance and learning about themselves along the way. The message being that one is never too old to learn more about what makes them tick.

The film, which moves about as slowly as both Redford and Nolte do along the trail, is a gentle look at two men who lost touch with one another getting reacquainted and it is amusing. There are however  very few laugh out loud moments, although the jealous husband at the hotel is funny.

Kwapis takes moments to remind the audience of where the two men are. Spectacular scenery and panoramic views take the breath away and one feels the pull to grab a backpack, tent and walking poles and join the exodus along the trail.

There are a few scenes where Bryson remarks on the ecological state of the trail and speaks of the decline of the Chestnut tree, but overall this is an older buddy film.  It is not unlike the Canadian Indie film “Land Ho.” While not based upon a Bryson travelogue the pacing and general feeling is not too dissimilar.

It is not a boring film, just  very slow paced and an ambling sort of entertainment.  The chemistry between the bluff, and often very florid, Nolte and the svelte yet prickly Redford is amusing enough and it is delightful to see these two old pros show how it should be done.

Steenburgen is captivating in her role as the hotelier who is clearly interested in Redford’s character.  Emma Thompson convinces as the spouse who knows her husband inside out and finds his past memories with Katz somewhat amusing.

“A Walk in the Woods” is a 3 star film. Nothing to really write home about but it is entertaining in its own way.  A little slow and rambling, a bit like the walk along the Appalachian trail itself.  Worth a look as it is on Amazon Prime at the moment.

 

Spotlight: A Powerful and Moving Truth

Directed by Tom McCarthy (The Cobbler, The Visitor) who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, Fringe) Spotlight stars Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, and is about six Boston Globe reporters who uncover a decades long cover up of priests who assaulted children all over the city

The Boston Globe & Spotlight

Directed by Tom McCarthy (The Cobbler, The Visitor) who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, Fringe) Spotlight stars Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, and is about six Boston Globe reporters who uncover a massive cover up of priests who assaulted children all over the city. As docudrama, Spotlight delivers a powerful and moving truth, that the church, and to a huge degree the city of Boston, swept facts under a rug to allowed pedophiles to continue to prey on their young victims.

The story follows the  journalists who discover that the Catholic Church, via Cardinal Law and the clergy’s  system itself,  actively sanctioned the cover-ups and repeatedly moved priests who were pedophiles and sexual predators. As the team of investigative reporters work to find answers and question new sources, the world carries on and a city’s officials continue to look the other way.

In many ways this is an old fashioned sort of film, harking back to the days of All the President’s Men, Erin Brockovich or even, with a bit of a stretch, Silkwood.  Granted, only the Woodward, Bernstein film is about reporters uncovering a very inconvenient truth, but all of the films deal with coverups by people who should have known better.  Out of the lot, Spotlight deals with something that both offends and dismays; an institution whose figureheads are the Pope and St Mary that condoned the molestation of children.

The title of the film refers to an investigative branch of The Boston Globe who work tirelessly to learn the truth behind allegations that priests were sexually abusing children throughout Boston and that the church, rather than punish those who transgressed, were just moving them on to another diocese. The list ultimately contained 87 names of priests who were sexual predators that the church, and the city, protected.

As a result of their investigative efforts the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage. Just as the film is evocative of other “whistle blower” films, or films about coverups, political and otherwise, the story also feels like a “throw-back” to proper journalism and those investigative reporters who worked so tirelessly to learn the truth. It could, in fact, serve as a training template for new journalists.

Spotlight is not shot in a manner to cause excitement, the hues of color in each scene feel like a blend of Boston coffee house and harsh office lighting.  The ambiance of the sets, which feel as real as any reporters cubicle desk back in the old days, lends a sense of reality to the journey these investigative journalists underwent to finally put all the pieces together.

The acting is grim, real and underplayed.  There are scenes of raw emotion, I defy anyone watching not to become emotional during Michael Rezendes’ outburst later in the film. Mark Ruffalo, as Rezendes, brings a deep seated intensity to his depiction of the “head” reporter on the case.  The Hulk actor has proven more often than not that he is destined to play more than a great green “Avenger” with anger management problems.

Michael Keaton now seems to have returned to the screen in earnest.  After his prolonged absence and brilliant return in the Oscar winning film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2014, Keaton proves with his depiction of Spotlight head Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson that his chops have not dulled in his absence.

Powerful, and moving performances were given by all. Even Liev Schreiber, who played the  smaller, but relatively important role of The Boston Globe’s “new boss” gives an impressively nuanced picture of the Jewish executive editor who tasks his investigative branch to take on the city of Boston and the Catholic Church.

There are a number of familiar faces in this “biopic” docudrama. All are beyond excellent, from Rachel McAdams’s role of the reporter whose Nan took her to church every Sunday to family man Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) who becomes upset when he realizes that two of these pedophile priests live in his neighborhood.

Spotlight works on a few levels, initially it shows, via the mundane nature  of  fact finding and “door knocking” by the team,  just how sources should be found, vetted and questioned.  “Old fashioned newspaper work” feet on the ground, research, and solid investigation are the order of the day.  The editors, all the ones “in the loop,” continually question their reporters on their status and waver between dropping the case and continuing.

Another factor, not mentioned in the film, but one that anyone in the journalistic field will be aware of is that this all took place not long after the “crucification” of investigative journalist Gary Webb. (The film Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner tells about this travesty which took place in the mid 1990s.)

This story has long reaching ramifications for the church.  The story of sexual predators as priests and their victims coming forward could have been buried when 9/11 occurred. (The twin towers were attacked during the investigation.)  In all likelihood the entire sickening episode would have received more attention had 9/11 not taken place.

Spotlight is a re-creation of events that took place in the early 2000s. While in some instances it feels a little like a newspaper version of Dragnet, it lacks the harsh delivery of the hit television show about Joe Friday. Instead it gives us a sober look at the less pleasant side of reporting and shows how investigative work should be done.

McCarthy allows us to see the pain, doubt and indecision behind the actions taken by the investigative team and all the people they interact with.  There may be elements of the “coverup” genre (which arguably should be a genre all its own) but the message is simple:

Any organization, despite its intent, is capable of protecting its own.  

Just like the police force closes ranks when a brother (or sister) in blue commits an offense, so too the Catholic Church closed ranks to protect its pedophiles.

Spotlight is easily one of the top ten films of 2015  that should be seen by all. Not just a message film, or even biopic per se, it is powerful indictment of the old fashioned virtues of the press that is missing in this day and age of Internet news and citizen journalists.

A 4 out of 5 star film that you will feel compelled to watch at least twice, if not more.

Trumbo: A Review

Trumbo, a recreation of the most shameful period of American history to date and the force that was Dalton Trumbo who defied the blacklist could and should win best picture this year. Starring Bryan Cranston, who should already be making space for an Oscar, Diane Lane and John Goodman, directed by Jay Roach, this docudrama/biopic is a film that is nigh on impossible to not love.

Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

Trumbo, a recreation of the most shameful period of American history to date and a depiction of the force that was Dalton Trumbo who defied the blacklist could and should win Best Picture for 2015.  Starring Bryan Cranston, who should already be making space for an Oscar, Diane Lane and John Goodman and directed by Jay Roach, this docudrama/biopic is a film that is impossible not to love.

Entertaining, funny, heartbreaking and thought provoking, Trumbo gets so  much right and this compensates for the few items that could be seen as wrong. The film looks sumptuous, rich and full of detail, from Dalton’s library to the tools of his trade, everything  looks spot on and beautiful. The things that do not work as well irk  but some things cannot be faithfully recreated.

A perfect example  of this is in the area of casting.  As the main  “protagonist”  Cranston’s casting of Dalton Trumbo is serendipity in its purest form, the man is Trumbo.  All of the actors chosen to play the “main roles”  fit their characters like tailored kid-gloves.  Diane Lane, for example,  who can play any part with a skill that many hope for and spend a lifetime trying to achieve but fall that bit short, becomes Cleo Trumbo almost effortlessly.

Elle Fanning, little sis to Dakota, as Trumbo’s teen daughter is perfect. Fanning is well on the path to outshining  her wunderkind older sister and her performance in this film proves that the Fanning girls definitely got more than their fair share of the talent gene.

Helen Mirren, drops the accent to portray Hedda Harper as a vicious and malicious shrew.  Best actress should be hers automatically.  Sadly, Lane and Fanning are also up for the gong and this three way race will definitely end in tears for someone.

John Goodman, along side Stephen Root who plays Hymie, portrays the outspoken ‘B’ filmmaker Frank King. Goodman’s King may just have the best comic line in the entire film. When chasing out a representative of the “opposition” Frank states that he makes films “for the p*ssy and the money, both of which are falling out of the trees,” One of those moments that if this was not what Frank really said, it should have been.

The true star of this film, however, is Cranston. He brings the legend that was Dalton Trumbo to life. Whether sitting in his bathtub telling Nikki off for disturbing him or attempting to survive in prison, the actor lends a realism to the Oscar winning writer who was blacklisted by a combination of well meaning patriots and vicious politicians with hidden agendas.  Although Hedda Hopper cannot be said to be either.  This vitriolic and strident gossip columnist could well be the template that some modern  writers strive to follow. (Ann Coulter for instance?)

The music, sets, cinematography and costumes in this film all combine to bring a breath of truth to the proceedings. Just as the mix of news reel footage of the time takes the viewer back to a most shameful time in the land  of the free so too do all these other elements bring the audience back to a different world.

There are things that have been “altered” or that annoy.  These few moments take nothing away from the film.  Part of the problem has to do with that ever present curse of biopic features that  deal with stars of yesteryear. Granted, finding a modern actor who could convincingly portray “Duke” Wayne, who had a life long love affair with America, would be difficult and it was.

The unenviable task fell to David James ElliottMichael Stuhlbarg was left to bring Edward G. Robinson to life, Dean O’Gorman was Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger was played by Christian Berkel. All the actors carried off their roles with varying degrees of success if one forgave that only O’Gorman came close to looking like the real performers the were meant to portray.

Cranston, as Trumbo, carries off the look and the sound of the legend and more importantly, the spirit of the man.  This film is a testament to the drive and tenacity of Trumbo as well as his overwhelming talent.

Director Jay Roach takes the John McNamara screenplay, adapted from Bruce Cook’s novel and breaths life into a time that many in the audience have only read about, if even that.  The communist witch hunts, lead later by McCarthy, got their start here in the land of dreams.

The stage was set by world events, as stated in the film’s introductory titles, making this, perhaps, an inevitability.  Roach captures the time and the feelings of a bygone era to great effect and come award time, Trumbo should sweep the gongs on offer.

This is easily the best film to come out this year, in the area of biopic/docudrama and features actors who all are well known for delivering first class performances. John Goodman, Alan Tudyk and Louis C.K. all give first rate portrayals. While Goodman is up for Best Supporting actor, he may be pipped at the post by Schulman’s vulnerable and touching performance as Edward G. Robinson, whom the committee forced to crawl and beg his way back to work. 

This is easily this critic’s favorite film, despite the bits that “do not fit exactly.”  Any biopic, especially one so long after the fact, will fictionalize, or alter certain time periods and facts, in order to make the story more entertaining and palatable.  Film, by the very nature of the medium, fictionalizes any “true story” or event. Trumbo is not exception, but it does not do so frivolously or senselessly, it alters for the over all good of the story.

Trumbo should be seen by all who have heard of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklist, Spartacus. Roman Holiday, Hedda Hopper or the Un-American Committee.  The film should also be seen by anyone who loves a hero, an intelligent and talented writer of creative works and Bryan Cranston.

This is a 5 star film and one that, thus far, falls into the category of favorite film of 2015. If you watch nothing else, watch this one and then when it garners praise at the award’s ceremonies later, you will not be surprised.