Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Reel Review: HOSTILES

The Old West can be a tricky genre to bring to the screen these days. It’s the one genre that can fill us with a great sense of nostalgia; images of cowboys and Indians, outlaws and lawman, gun-slinging and horseback riding into the sunset. It’s all familiar territory that movie fans love, but perhaps a little too familiar; after 100 years of Old West films, it’s a challenge to make the old seem new again. Such is the task for writer and director Scott Cooper and HOSTILES.

In 1892, Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) reluctantly accepts the task of escorting a Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) back to his tribal land; from New Mexico to Montana. Along the long journey, Blocker and his men come across a widow (Rosamund Pike) whose family was killed by hostile Comanches.

The structure of HOSTILES is an episodic, road-trip movie…with the travelers going from one area to another avoiding hazards such as Comanche attacks, outlaw fur-trappers, overzealous land-owners, and bad weather. The journey gets off on the wrong foot right away, as Blocker, weary and broken from way too many years of war and killing Indians, would rather be doing anything than escorting a war chief, who is himself guilty of many atrocities, back to his native land and freedom. Things are compounded when the widow, Rosalie, comes into the picture and is forced to travel with Indians when she just saw her family slaughtered by natives.

Putting characters into tough positions and seeing how they survive is the name of the game here, and it works well. Blocker, and his long-time comrade Tommy (Rory Cochrane), are both broken men who feel they lost their souls over their years of killing natives, and having them on a mission which is basically a humanitarian task is an opportunity for redemption for the both of them. By the time the destination is reached and the bullets and blood are done, both redemption and tragedy are found in shocking ways.

Director Scott Cooper is no hurry to get his characters anywhere, and certainly drives home the point that it took a long time to go places on horseback. The journey is slow and treacherous, and it shows. The landscapes are filmed beautifully, and Cooper can’t help but to film more than one important scene with the only light coming from a campfire. The gun-fights are outstanding and offer more than one seat-jumper. Max Richter’s score is outstanding, and Ryan Bingham contributes some period-piece friendly original songs.

Christian Bale is outstanding and once again proves his great range. He is battle-fatigued to the point where there is barely anything behind his voice, and the struggle the character has to do his duty can be felt at all times. Rosamund Pike is equally great, and the moment when she has to bury her own family is a heartbreaker. Rory Cochrane nearly steals the show as Blocker’s right-hand man and old friend. The rest of the cast, including Stephen Lang, Wes Studi, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, and Timothee Chalamet are all excellent. Ben Foster shows up in a little twist of an extended cameo. If there’s any flaw, it’s that the commitment to the style of speaking is so good that it’s occasionally difficult to understand bits of dialogue.

HOSTILES is officially a 2017 film, but it’s dumb release-strategy doesn’t have most of the world seeing it until late January…which basically sabotaged any hopes it had during Awards Season. As shame, as it would certainly have been a contender. Scott Cooper has delivered a Western that is simple in structure, but rich in character…giving the Old West something new to hang its hat on.  


Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Reel Opinion: Oscars v. Superheroes

The nominations for the 90th Academy Awards were announced this week (read the recap HERE), and one of the most-talked about snubs, or surprises, is the exclusion of Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN. The superhero flick based on the famed DC Comics character was one of the biggest hits of the year, earning universal praise and pulling in an impressive box office haul; it was the ninth-highest grossing film of the year, and is currently the all-time fifth-highest grossing superhero film domestically. It was a cultural phenomenon; re-inventing a decades old comic character and inspiring young women across the globe, with actress Gal Gadot, who played the lead role, instantly rising into the stratosphere of stardom.

And on Tuesday, the Academy nominated it for nothing.

Almost immediately, calls for the Academy being blind to the accomplishments of women in cinema populated social media, despite some historic nominations happening this year. Greta Gerwig, director of LADY BIRD, became the fifth female recognized in the Best Director category, and Rachel Morrison made history as the first woman nominated for Best Cinematography; nominated for MUDBOUND. Not to mention Meryl Streep’s nomination for THE POST made her the most nominated performer of all-time. Yes, the industry has made great steps forward in recognizing women, but those disappointed in WONDER WOMAN’s shutout say it’s a step backwards.

But history also brings up another point; the Academy is too quick to dismiss superhero movies. There is a snobbery that can be felt every year; superhero films are too cartoony, flashy, noisy, and silly to be taken seriously. In 2008, when Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT didn’t earn an expected nomination for Best Picture, the point was proven that any film with a cape and mask would not be considered; despite Nolan’s film having the cinematic maturity that Academy voters seem to look for. Although Heath Ledger from DARK KNIGHT won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year, superhero films, it seems, would mostly be limited to the technical categories such as visual effects and makeup.

Just as the Academy (and the industry) has slowly been making the turn for women in film, they have slowly (like molasses in January) been making progress in looking at superhero films. This year, James Mangold’s LOGAN became the first superhero adaptation to earn a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, showing that the right approach can work. LOGAN didn’t play out like a superhero film at all, and made the bold and brave moves to take a beloved hero and turn him into a broken old man. It was a move forward for the genre, and the Academy noticed.

WONDER WOMAN was also a step forward for the genre; being the first superhero film with a female lead to be successful critically and financially. But film-wise it stuck close to the standard template that movies of the genre tend to stick to, and while that worked just fine, that’s not enough to impress the Academy. At best, the film could have, and probably should have earned nods for Costume Design, Original Score, and some other technical categories…but Best Picture was always a bit of a stretch. The situation wasn’t quite right for a cape and mask to enter the Best Picture race, but like so many out there who have been overlooked in the past…the day is coming.


The Oscars will be awarded March 4th.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Reel Facts & Opinions: Oscar Nominations - The Good, The Bad, & The Glorious

Nominations for the 90th Academy Awards were announced today, bringing with them a mix of Good, Bad, and Glorious. Here’s how it breaks down…


-The nominations were announced in a slickly produced setting with hosts Andy Serkis and Tiffany Haddish (more on them in a minute). Each category was preceded by a short video with stars such as Gal Gadot and Zoe Saldana. The videos were fun and created specific for each category with no dialogue and strong visuals…like a silent film from the age of yesteryear. More of this for the actual ceremony, please.

-Diversity is once again the primary topic of discussion. Oscar favorites Octavia Spencer and Denzel Washington are back, along with newcomer Daniel Kaluuya. Dee Rees became the first African American nominated in adapted screenplay, for her work on MUDBOUND.

-Some other history: Meryl Streep is now the most nominated performer with 21 career nods, having been recognized for her work in THE POST. Also, Christopher Plummer, who famously replaced Kevin Spacey in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD six weeks before opening night, earned a nomination and became the oldest person ever to be nominated at 88 years young.

-More history: Greta Gerwig, director of LADY BIRD, became the fifth female recognized in the Best Director category, and Rachel Morrison made history as the first woman nominated for Best Cinematography; she was nominated for MUDBOUND.

-James Franco was not nominated for Best Actor for THE DISASTER ARTIST, despite a strong showing during this awards season. Franco was likely passed on due to inappropriate sexual conduct allegations, and it seems the Academy has finally drawn a line; you misbehave, we don’t want you.


-Co-host Tiffany Haddish was a goddamn disaster. She stumbled over every name that was longer than one syllable, mispronounced everything, and came off as an amateur. A little bit of preparation goes a long way.

-I, TONYA, one of the most acclaimed films of the year…did not get a Best Picture nomination, despite earning nominations for Best Actress (Margot Robbie), and Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney).

-MUDBOUND, a Netflix production, earned four nominations. While this is definitely deserved, the Academy just contradicted its long-standing rule of films needing to play in an actual movie theatre to be eligible. MUDBOUND never left the TV screen, and now the rules have become clear as mud.

-Vicky Krieps was not nominated despite her tremendous turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD.

-Patty Jenkins’ magnificent WONDER WOMAN, a cultural phenomenon, did not receive a single nomination.


-Co-host Andy Serkis was a charismatic charmer. Get this man a job as a future Oscar host.

--John Williams received his 51st career Oscar nomination with his nod for Best Original Score for STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI.

-Speaking of STAR WARS, the four nominations for THE LAST JEDI brings the total number of nominations for the franchise up to 36 over nine films. This is second only to the Middle-Earth films of THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which has 38 nominations over six films.

-Christopher Nolan finally gets his first Best Director nomination for his towering DUNKIRK, which earned a total of eight.

-This was a great year for sci-fi and fantasy. Guillermo del Toro’s fairy-tale THE SHAPE OF WATER leads the pack with 13 nominations, and the genre is backed up by THE LAST JEDI (four), BLADE RUNNER 2049 (five), and LOGAN (one). LOGAN, by the way, is the first superhero adaptation to be nominated for its writing.

-2017 has generally been considered a strong year for film, with many movies earning plenty of good attention, accolades, and reviews. This year the list of Best Picture nominees reflects exactly that, with nine movies selected for the top category (by the way, five of the nine appeared in Reel Speak’s Top 10 Best list HERE), so the Academy was clearly impressed by the year’s output.


See all of the nominees HERE

The Oscars will be awarded March 4th.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Reel Opinion: The Best & Worst Films of 2017 - Part 2

As stated in Part 1 (HERE), the worst of 2017 happened off the screen, as some of Hollywood’s biggest names were revealed to be flat-out evil men; committing atrocities against women and children for decades. But the absolute best part is that the revelations did finally happen; the bad guys have been flushed out and will continue to be flushed out.

It was a grand year for women in film, as several of the top grossing films of 2017 had female leads, and women who operate behind the camera were noticed during Awards Season. The year was a major step forward, and the trend is sure to continue.

On the screen, Disney had another one of their stellar years; hitting pay-dirt with their re-adaptation of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and two emotional wallops with their two Pixar offerings, CARS 3 and COCO. On the battlefield of superheroes, Marvel served up a triple-cocktail of excellence with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING, and THOR: RAGNAROK. Rival studio DC Comics in the meantime blazed new trails with their magnificent WONDER WOMAN.

Other films that this Blogger highly recommends are Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD, Ridley Scott’s ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, Darren Aronofsky’s MOTHER!, Craig Gillespie’s I, TONYA, Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED, James Franco’s THE DISASTER ARTIST, and Gary Oldman’s stunning performance in DARKEST HOUR.

Now, on to the ten best films of 2017.

10. LOGAN – The first X-MEN movie way back in 2000 can be credited with getting the ball rolling on the current wave of superhero films, and it took 17 years for the franchise to find a film with the maturity and emotional power of any Oscar or arthouse film. Hugh Jackman, playing the clawed, self-healing mutant for perhaps the final time, plays the once-mighty Wolverine as a broken and aging character, in exile and ridden with guilt. It was a sobering thing to see, and a far cry from the typical cartoon-like movies we get from comic book adaptions; our heroes do grow old, which is new territory for the genre.  Director James Mangold delivered a film with a tremendous sense of closure, topped off with an amazing closing shot.

9. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – An aging and broken hero in exile is also the basis for the 8th entry in the central STAR WARS saga, as writer and director Rian Johnson makes the bold move to tear down the iconic Luke Skywalker (wonderfully reprised by Mark Hamill), and give him the mightiest weight any Jedi has to carry; the last of his kind with the responsibility to pass on what he’s learned. Where the preceding film, THE FORCE AWAKENS, played it safe, THE LAST JEDI threw out the playbook and dug in deep, offering a startling, and welcome self-reflection at the way we perceive failure, legends, and heroes…all while keeping true to the values established in the first STAR WARS 40 years ago, capped by a closing shot decades in the making. The decisions made here may have been divisive among fans, but it ultimately proved one thing; after all this time, STAR WARS is still full of surprises.  

8. BLADE RUNNER 2049 – Speaking of surprising sequels to a decades-old film, Denis Villeneuve delivers a sequel which is far superior to the original, cult-favorite BLADE RUNNER from 1982. Picking right up in the futuristic world where artificial humans are manufactured and hunted, 2049 is visually stunning, thoughtful and engaging, trance-like and meaningful. Harrison Ford steps right back into the role he created 30 years ago, and the film has excellent performances from Ryan Gosling, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, and Ana de Armas.

7. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI – A wonky third act does not stop this film from being the acting powerhouse of the year, with tremendous performances from Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell. Director Martin McDonagh’s tale of tragedy and loss was a snapshot of small town America, while making a strong statement on race, family, and coping with loss.

6. THE SHAPE OF WATER – It was an excellent year for sci-fi and fantasy, and director Guillermo del Toro’s take on the old Beauty and the Beast fairy tale was the capper. Set in the 1950’s, del Toro takes us to a secret government facility where a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) connects with a captured mysterious sea creature. It’s a tale of two misfits literally from different worlds who find common ground, and despite the odd circumstances their love doesn’t seem that far-fetched. The film has a dream-like trance effect to it, and the great Michael Shannon turns in one of the best bad-guy performances of the year.

5. THE POST – Done in the spirit of the classic newspaper film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, famed director Steven Spielberg brings us the all-important, and very relevant story about the publishing of The Pentagon Papers, which exposed over 30 years of lies about Vietnam by the U.S. government. Spielberg draws many on-the-nose parallels between the Nixon Administration and what’s happening in today’s White House, and while that may seem like low hanging fruit, it works and it works well. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are both tremendous, and THE POST easily belongs on the top shelf of important journalism films; it’s all about telling the truth.

4. WIND RIVER – Taylor Sheridan beefs up his strong resume, which already includes SICARIO (2015), and HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016). Jeremy Renner plays a hunter of predators on an Indian Reservation who assists a young FBI Agent, played by Elizabeth Olsen, in a murder investigation. What could be a simple and clichéd procedural turns into a twisting and turning stunner, while reminding us of the continuing, modern struggles of the American Indian.

3. PHANTOM THREAD – The last time writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson collaborated with the great Daniel Day-Lewis, we got the magnificent THERE WILL BE BLOOD in 2007. Ten years later, they get together again, and deliver an elegant, layered, and unique look at love. Taking place in the 1950’s high-end world of dressmaking, Anderson and Day-Lewis paint the life of a famed dressmaker as one of strict routine, only to be upset when a new lover (wonderfully played by Vicky Krieps) enters the picture. Shot and edited beautifully, PHANTOM THREAD takes the elements of love and relationships into shocking directions, while throwing in one of the most hair-raising, frightening scenes in all of 2017 cinema. This is the product of two masters at work.

2. A GHOST STORY – On paper, the concept seemed ridiculous; take your lead actor (Casey Affleck), throw a sheet over him for 90% of his screentime, and strip away almost all the dialogue. In lesser hands, it would be a failure, but writer and director David Lowery turns it into a masterpiece of love, loss, and the staggering concept of just how enormous time can be. Affleck plays a ghost who is not ready to move on, due to his un-ending love for his wife (Rooney Mara). Time goes by in a blink for the film, but slowly for him, and the decades that pass on-screen boggles the mind. This is a simple, yet grand idea on what happens in the afterlife, and more importantly, what happens when we’re here.

1. DUNKIRK – This Blogger and his girlfriend had the opportunity to view Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic in the glorious 70mm format this year, and it made for one of the most memorable and jaw-dropping cinematic experiences for us both. DUNKIRK, which tells the story of the difficult evacuation of over 300,000 Allied troops who were pinned down with nowhere to go, was definitely made for the big (and biggest) screens possible with its large canvas spanning the enormity of land, sea, and air battles. But beyond that, Nolan finds and re-invents an old cinematic language of impressionistic sights and sound; ditching the clichéd usage of bravado speeches, planting flags, and taking that last hill. The film is fully immersive as it drops us right into the battles taking place on three different fronts, and it makes for an unforgettable and harrowing experience. Nolan’s fascination with the concept of time takes what could have been a simple A to Z tale into a thinking-man’s war picture, and the editing, sound design, and commitment to practical effects and old-fashioned filmmaking is most-impressive. No other film in 2017 was as stunning, or found that rare balance of making old-school, classic cinema feel like new; and that is the best of all worlds.

The Best Films of 2017

1.       DUNKIRK

2.       A GHOST STORY


4.       WIND RIVER

5.       THE POST



8.       BLADE RUNNER 2049


10.   LOGAN

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Reel Opinion: The Best & Worst Films of 2017 - Part 1

The worst part of 2017 cinema happened off the screens, as the dark side of Hollywood and the industry as a whole was exposed to the world. Men in powerful positions, behaving badly or like children, were revealed to have been committing atrocities against women and children for decades, and although it is a good thing that they have finally been outed, it’s a shame that it took so long for it to come to light. 2017 may have given movies a black eye, but women in cinema and everywhere else will emerge the better for it.

Other bad news to come out in 2017 film was the passing of industry favorites such as Jim Nabors, Della Reese, Robert Guillaume, Bernie Casey, Frank Vincent, Tobe Hooper, Jerry Lewis, Sonny Landham, Robert Hardy, Sam Shepard, John Heard, George Romero, John G. Avildsen, Adam West, Powers Boothe, Michael Parks, Roger Moore, Jonathan Demme, Erin Moran, Don Rickles, Bill Paxton, Richard Hatch, John Hurt, Martin Landau, and William Peter Blatty.

Back on the screen, this Blogger was a little more selective in choosing films to review, with almost 50 films in the theatre, down from the usual 60-something average. Avoided were critically drubbed stinkbombs such as THE EMOJI MOVIE, THE MUMMY, FLATLINERS, THE SHACK, or anything made by Adam Sandler or Tyler Perry. Out of nearly 50, this Blogger can only come up with five that should have, and could have been better than what they were. But oddly enough, all five of these films have one thing in common (besides stinking); none of them should have ever been made.

This is what happens…

5. THE DARK TOWER – Even if we ignore the fact that author Stephen King’s massive eight-volume story was condensed down to a 95-minute movie, this lame adaptation was still a wasted opportunity. Excellent actors such as Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughy were way too good for this movie, which looked like a cheap knockoff that even the SyFy channel wouldn’t touch. It was rushed, bland, predictable, and not nearly as epic as it told us it was. And the biggest sin of all is that it was boring; which is something that a fantasy film should never be.

4. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES – Every movie should be judged as if no other movies exist; that is, on its own merits and faults seen on the screen. But, for franchise movies we have to consider consistency, and that’s where this fifth entry in the PIRATES series runs aground. One has to wonder if the filmmakers here ever saw any of the PIRATES films, because they literally throw out every major rule and plot point that was so well established before. It’s a break in continuity done for the sake of a sequel which accomplishes very little. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow had his moments, but not nearly enough to save this sinking ship.

3. ALIEN: COVENANT -  Ridley Scott continues to muck up his once famed franchise that he started back in 1979. COVENANT had the job of mopping up the sloppy loose ends that were left out there by its predecessor, PROMETHEUS in 2012. That was done all right, but once it was, there was no movie to be found as characters had little to do but make dumb decisions and stand around to get killed. Worse, the mythos behind the famed alien creature and its creators became dumber and weaker. And it’s still not finished with even more loose ends punted down the road.

2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME – Critics have been drooling all over this remorseless slog all year, all while ignoring the glaring issue of a grown American man travelling to Italy and having a sexually-charged love affair with a 17-year-old boy. Even if we buy into the idea, the American (played by Armie Hammer), is given zero backstory to justify his fascination with young boys, and worse, the kid’s parents actually endorse it. There are no ramifications or consequences for their dubious affair, and in a year where Hollywood is constantly being accused of pedophilia, it is mind-boggling that a film would be finding ways to justify it. It also had zero climax or buildup in character and plot, and pacing that made it seem 900 hours long. Everything about this was wrong.

1. JIGSAW – No one expected very much from the 8th entry in the SAW horror series which should have ended after the first film, and released seven years after the supposed finale in 2010. This pile of nonsense steals from one of its predecessors with some time manipulation that could be seen from a mile away, and continued to mess up the backstory of the famous Jigsaw killer with more useless flashback. The traps were ridiculous and well beyond the suspension of disbelief, and the acting awful. But the dealbreaker is that it commits the worst sin of all for a horror movie; it wasn’t scary. At all. That’s requirement number one for any horror film, and a failure to do so is reason enough alone to earn a spot as the worst of the year.

The Worst Films of 2017 


Read the Best of 2017 HERE

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Reel Review: I, TONYA

In 1994, figure skater Tonya Harding had everything going for her. At just 23 years old, she was a skating champion who had already made history by becoming the first woman to land the famed triple-axel, and was on her way to her second Olympic games. Then, she became implicated in an assault on her competition, Nancy Kerrigan, and her life became a media frenzy and a punch-line for all time. How and why she went from a champion to an outcast is the basis for Craig Gillespie’s I, TONYA.

Harding (Margot Robbie) becomes a famous figure skater despite her rough upbringing, which includes abuse by her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her tough-love mother LaVona (Allison Janney). With just six weeks to go before her second Winter Olympics, she is implicated in an assault on her competition Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), and has her life turned upside-down forever.

Based on thousands of interviews done on the real-life Harding and now ex-husband Gillooly, I, TONYA is a film which has two distinct missions; first, to tell her life story, and second, to seemingly explain the motives behind what would ultimately be one of the dumbest decisions in all of sports history. The film follows Tonya as a talented figure skater from the age of three, as she battles a tough industry which wants their skaters to look and act like princesses, and not girls who swear, hunt, chop wood, and fix car engines. This is an essential element to Tonya’s story, as her rough background, which includes beatings from her husband and mother, forge the character who feels she can never get a fair shot.

Justification is the name of the game, and it works. Gillooly’s initial plan to send threatening letters to Kerrigan, with the help of his idiot friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) comes from a place of just wanting to help Tonya out…and when the idea turns into an actual assault, all parties involved seem as shocked as the rest of the world would be. But director Craig Gillespie does such fine work in making this a human story, with everyone getting their due, that the motives behind everything are relatable, and amazingly sympathetic. Everyone’s actions boil down to downright stupidity and growing up with a lack of love, and that seems to be the true message of I, TONYA.

Gillespie tells his story through the eyes and words of his main players, with Tonya, LaVona, and Gillooly facing the camera and telling their side of things. The film is snappy, funny, packed with rock music from the era and has a tremendous sense of energy and momentum. The skating scenes are tremendous; many are filmed in long, unbroken takes and drop us right on the ice, and the re-creations of actual events, especially the ones we’ve seen on TV many times over the past two decades, are excellent and stunning. The scenes of abuse where Tonya is taking a beating from her husband or mother are tough to watch, and the assault on Kerrigan is also a pulse-pounder.

Margot Robbie is a joy to watch as Tonya at all times; whether she’s going through training, skating, taking a punch, or dealing with the pain of a mother who doesn’t love her…Robbie delivers. Sebastian Stan takes on Gillooly in both look and mannerisms, and Paul Walter Hauser is practically a clone of Eckhardt. But the film is stolen by Allison Janney, who as Tonya’s chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, swearing-like-a-drunken-sailor mother is one of the most despicable characters of all cinema; first to throw a punch at her kid and last to ever say “I love you”.

Both sides of the story are told, and no one comes out looking innocent by movie’s end. Tonya’s knowledge of the assault on Kerrigan is left open for endless debate, but at the very least the world should have a better understanding of the human being that was, and still is underneath that rough exterior. Craig Gillespie has created one of the most unique sports films of all time here, one that can inspire despite being about one of the most controversial figures of all time.


Monday, January 8, 2018

A Reel Review: THE POST

In 1971, The New York Times and The Washington Post brought the attention of the world to what would be known as The Pentagon Papers; a large, secret volume of the history of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The papers revealed that the government had been lying and misleading the public for decades; including official reports on how the Vietnam War was going for the U.S. It would become an unprecedented war between journalism and government, and the decisions made leading to that battle is the story for Steven Spielberg’s THE POST.

Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), is the first female publisher of The Washington Post, which is struggling financially and about to go public on the stock market for its survival.  With investors breathing down her neck, the challenge is intensified when she and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), wrestle with the legal and ethical decision of publishing The Pentagon Papers, which details four Presidential administration’s involvement in Vietnam…and contradicts the official story from the government.

The thrill of THE POST lays within the hard decisions made behind the scenes, with Bradlee wrestling with legal teams over the publication of the papers, and Graham dealing with nervous investors who could possibly pull their financial support. On both fronts, the future of The Washington Post is at stake, with the publication of the damning documents holding consequences in both the stock market and the court of law.

The clock is ticking here at all times, and the pressure is on. The Washington Post is scrambling to acquire the documents and print stories, while the government has already taken The New York Times to court (they broke the story about the existence of the documents first). With government bearing down, the stakes become wide and far-reaching, but director Steven Spielberg still finds a way to make this a very human story. Graham has the biggest pressure to deal with as the first female publisher for the paper and has to prove herself in a man’s world, and her friendship with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), whom the documents do not paint in the best light, puts her in a precarious position. Bradlee on the other hand has journalistic ethics to grapple with, and his past friendship with former President John F. Kennedy has the famed editor wondering if he had been completely fair in the past. For a film with such far-reaching implications for the media and government, it’s the two main characters that drive it, and that is the true draw of THE POST as it is a very human story.

Spielberg keeps the pacing tight and the scenes full of tension and fun. Shots are meticulously framed and express that feeling of larger things bearing down on our characters. The film looks great, and John Williams’ score is superb.

Acting is excellent. Tom Hanks is a little grumbly as Bradlee, but is still a blast to watch and it seems Hanks had fun in the role. The film belongs to Streep as her character feels the pressures of the decisions she has to make, and she expresses more emotion and thought in a single glance than most actors today can express in spoken words. Another strength of the film is in its supporting cast; Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all great.

The events of THE POST occur during the Richard Nixon administration, and the film utilizes Nixon’s old White House recordings in which the President angrily lashes out against the media and sets out to bar reporters from The Washington Post from attending White House events. It’s a startling, and on-the-nose parallel to today’s political climate, which makes THE POST a very relevant film. But politics aside, Spielberg has delivered a tight and engaging film; one that we can all learn a lot from.


Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2018 - Episode I

The first two months of the year are traditionally Movie Siberia; where films deemed not good enough for Oscar Season or the fun Summer blockbuster months are sent to die. Cinema goers would be better off checking out the late-season awards contenders as they slowly move into wide release this month, but for what it’s worth…here are the notable new releases for the first month of 2018.

PADDINGTON 2 – The sequel to the 2014 adaptation of the beloved children’s book. Ben Whishaw (SPECTRE), provides the voice of the cuddly bear, and he is joined by Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, and Hugh Grant.

THE COMMUTER – Liam Neeson stars as a commuter who is approached by a stranger on a train with an odd deal with dire consequences. Vera Farmiga (THE DEPARTED) plays the stranger.

PROUD MARY – In the spirit of the blaxpoitation films of the 1970’s, Taraji P. Henson (HIDDEN FIGURES), plays a hitwoman whose latest job leaves her with an orphan boy.

DEN OF THIEVES – Gerard Butler (300) plays a Los Angeles detective on the trail of a group of high-end thieves. Co-stars Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.

12 STRONG – One of the better-looking films of the month, based on the true story of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan just after the 9/11 attacks. It stars Chris Hemsworth (THOR), Michael Shannon (THE SHAPE OF WATER), and Michael Pena (ANT-MAN). 

PLEASE STAND BY – Another good-looking film in this month. Dakota Fanning plays an autistic writer who enters a competition in the 1960’s to write a STAR TREK episode. Co-stars Alice Eve, Jessica Rothe, Toni Collette, and Tony Revolori (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL).


Next month, Episode II previews the month of February.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


Cinema has embraced the basic premise of Romeo and Juliet in many shapes and forms over the decades; the idea of lovers separated by rules and/or class has been seen on screens in titles like TITANIC, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and KING KONG…with love being the justification for all actions by man, woman, and beast. For director Luca Guadagnino and his love story CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, love is certainly the message he wants to press, and absolutely nothing else matters.

Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a 24-year-old doctoral student who spends a summer as an intern at a professor’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) family home in southern Italy, and begins a love affair with Elio (Timothee Chalamet), the professor’s 17-year-old son.

Light on plot and heavy on character, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME spends most of its time with Oliver and Elio, as they meet, argue, feud, and eventually begin a sexually-charged affair. Most of the film shows us the two in their down-time (of which Oliver seems to have a lot of for someone working on a doctorate), lazily spending the summer Italy heat at swimming holes and bicycle paths.

Forbidden love isn’t the obstacle Oliver and Elio have to overcome as much as coming to grips with their feelings, and while that is still familiar territory, the idea of a man actively showing interest in a 17-year-old boy is the new element. A young man crushing on someone older is quite natural, but Oliver comes off as a creep right away…hitting on the kid almost immediately after he arrives at the family home. The age difference between the two is what makes their love questionable (yes it’s Italy where the rules may be different, but Oliver is an American and so is Elio’s father), and neither character bothers to grapple with the morality of it. No one seems to think that their affair is wrong, not even the parents (slight spoiler: they know the whole time and are cool with it), and the film just winds up with a creep-factor to it.

While Luca Guadagnino is busy justifying having sex with underage boys and showing us what a boy does in his bedroom when he’s alone, he’s also editing a joyless slog. Pacing is brutal and the film feels like it’s 900 hours long. There is also no buildup towards anything; no real climax or arc for any character and the film just seems to run out of things to do. The countryside of Italy is presented beautifully and the film works better as a tour-guide video than an actual story. But nicely re-created is the time-period; the clothes, music, and styles of 1983 look and work great.

Acting is all over the place. Armie Hammer is as one-note as his character; just bland and one-dimensional and nothing for him to work with as no explanation is given for his desires. Timothee Chalamet on the other hand is very good, getting the most work to do as a confused boy, and his emotional turmoil at the very end of the film is executed beautifully. Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as always.

The two things that make a forbidden love story work are (a) making us want the characters to be together, and (b) dire consequences for their actions. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME has zero consequences as every creep in the film is OK with it, and the age difference between the two lovers is hard to get our heads around. The message that the film is pushing is love, but it’s also saying that love justifies men sleeping with boys as long as it happens in Italy. And with the lack of anything for the characters to overcome, the film shoots blanks in all directions. Everything about this movie is wrong.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018


The last time writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis worked together, we were treated to the magnificent THERE WILL BE BLOOD in 2007; often considered to be one of the finest films ever made and the best of this millennium. Their newest, and perhaps final collaboration, PHANTOM THREAD, does not match those heights, but it does not aspire to, nor does it need to. Like any good follow-up, their new film is very much its own thing, and doesn’t reach for the stars but instead digs in deep.

Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a dress designer in the 1950’s who caters to London’s rich and famous and royalty. He meets and falls for Alma (Vicky Krieps), a humble waitress. Soon the two have a love affair which leads to Vicky sharing a home with Reynolds and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who is responsible for maintaining the delicate routines so her brother can work.

PHANTOM THREAD does not have a lot of by way of plot, and spends most of its time exploring the relationships between Reynolds, his love-interest Alma, and his sister Cyril…with the bulk of the film concentrating on Alma’s various ups and downs as she figures out how to function in the household which doubles as Reynold’s workspace. The pressures of high-end dress-making takes its toll on Reynolds, and daily routines are absolutely vital to him…and Alma finds out the hard way that even buttering toast too loudly can upset that delicate balance.

Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson weaves in and around the three principal characters as they figure out how to live with each other and get their task done. A virtual love-triangle is created as Alma and Cyril each want the best for Reynolds but approach it different ways; some methods work, some don’t…and in addition to exploring relationships, Anderson digs in to explore the nature of being an artist and how art and love co-exist. But the true brilliance behind Anderson’s script is that just when the film seems to be heading into familiar and clichéd territory, it takes a drastic left-turn and re-invents itself. PHANTOM THREAD goes into areas that are surprising, dark, shocking, and even downright hair-raising and bone-chilling. There is an episodic nature to it, with each new chapter keeping the pages turning.

Anderson films a lush and beautiful looking movie, fully capturing the feel of the 1950’s and the painstaking process of creating high-end dresses. There is an intimacy between characters and the dresses just as much as the characters have with each other. Pacing is a steady slow-burn with the unpredictable nature of the script keeping things moving. The film is also extremely funny without going overboard.

Acting is tremendous. Daniel Day-Lewis is hypnotic with his soothing voice and quietly intense demeanor; there’s always indications that there’s something brewing underneath his handsome looks. In what may be his final role, Day-Lewis once again shows us just far above the acting world he really is. As great as he is, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville match him nicely.

By movie’s end, Reynolds and Alma aren’t quite living happily-ever-after, but the events of PHANTOM THREAD have armed them with the tools necessary to work on the inevitable bumps they are sure to encounter. Like any beautiful garment, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis have crafted something that can be admired from afar, and deeply appreciated for its detail. This is a wonderful statement on life, love, and art…perhaps the three most vital elements for any film.