The Party

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 11:50 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Satiric violence including punches, gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018

Copyright 2018 Rhodeside Attractions
“The Party” is a short, savagely funny, black and white film from writer/director Sally Potter with an all-star cast moving at light speed through a real-time gathering that goes very quickly from a celebration to a political and emotional bloodbath.

It does start out as a party. Hostess and honoree Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) has just achieved her professional goal by being appointed to the British cabinet position overseeing health care. She is busy in the kitchen making vol au vent, barely aware of her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), who is sitting dolefully in the living room, playing jazz on old-school analog LPs.

The guests start to arrive. Janet’s oldest friend April (Patricia Clarkson) is a sharp-tongued cynic, escorted by Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a German believer in spiritual healing who calls Western medicine “voodoo.” April continuously demeans him, explaining that they are about to break up. Martha (Cherry Jones) is Janet’s political ally, but she will soon be distracted by news from her pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer). Everyone is so distracted that they barely notice Tom (Cillian Murphy), who works in finance and arrives ahead of his wife Marianne and immediately goes to the bathroom to snort some cocaine. Also, he has a gun.

As the vol au vent burns, a daisy chain of accusation, recrimination, confession, and betrayal rocks the group and challenges their most fundamental notions of who they are as individuals, as upholders of particular political views that they consider essential parts of themselves, and as people who thought they understood their connections to each other.

It’s in stunning black and white, but we imagine the shower of virtual crimson blood from the verbal rapier thrusts and real-life punches at this most savage of celebrations. What is intended to be a small gathering of close friends to congratulate the hostess on her important new cabinet position unfolds in real time as series of attacks, revelations, betrayals, and, yes, political metaphors. Brilliantly performed by some of the greatest actors from both sides of the Atlantic with dialog that crackles like static electricity, it is directed at the high speed of a drawing room comedy but with knowing, devastating impact by Potter.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong and explicit language and many tense and unhappy confrontations. Characters drink and use drugs and threaten gun violence.

Family discussion: Is Janet a hypocrite about healthcare when she responds to Bill’s announcement? Why is it hard for Martha to respond the way Jinny wants her to? Why did Tom come to the party?

If you like this, try: Potter’s other films, including “Yes,” “Orlando,” and “The Tango Lesson”

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The Post

Posted on December 25, 2017 at 11:01 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking and drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Some wartime violence
Diversity Issues: Some sexist treatment
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2017
Date Released to DVD: April 16, 2018
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), publisher of The Washington Post, is going over a list of financial and legal documents once again, rehearsing her answers to the questions she will be getting from bankers about selling shares in the company to the public for the first time. This job is one she never anticipated and never wanted. Her father had handed the business over to her husband and she had been perfectly content to be a mother and a socialite, hosting gracious parties and enjoying friendships with people who were important but never being important herself. But her husband has died — no, she reminds a colleague, he committed suicide. And so this is the job she has, even though the men around her are not sure she can do it and she is far from sure herself.

Daniel Ellsberg (“The Americans'” Matthew Rhys), a top aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), watches his boss tell reporters that the military was making progress in Vietnam, exactly the opposite of what Ellsberg had told him moments before. Later, working for the RAND Corporation think tank, he would take 47 volumes of reports on the government’s lies about the military efforts in Vietnam and send them to the New York Times. When the Nixon administration got a court order to stop further publication, it was shy, inexperienced Mrs. Graham who would have to decide whether she would risk her reputation, her family business, and even her freedom to continue to print the story.

And that, my friends in journalism, is why The Post, about the real-life publication of the Pentagon Papers, is not about the New York Times, which published them first, but about the then-considerably second-tier Washington Post and Mrs. Graham, who risked the collapse of the crucial deal to secure their finances, published second. This is about a woman who did not have greatness thrust upon her; she became great when greatness beckoned. And in playing Graham, we see a woman who began great and is still getting greater.

I know, I know, we’re all kind of over how great Meryl Streep is. She has given us so many decades of impeccable performances and inevitable awards nominations that we just take her for granted. But Streep’s performance in “The Post” is worthy of special attention because it shows us exactly what makes her the best actor of her generation. There’s nothing especially flashy about it. She did not have to learn a new language or transform herself as she has done in the past. Yet she is, as always, astonishingly precise in this film as Katharine Graham, a very private 1970’s socialite who is not yet aware of how fundamentally she is changing to become the leader of a major media outlet.

The very best actors convey a mixture of emotions. In “The Post,” the play of thoughts and feelings in Streep’s face as she seeks the courage to stand up to the men who are telling her what to do is like a master class in acting. She is nervous but resolute, insecure about her ability, unsure of her role, but certain about her commitment to the paper. We see how devoted she is to her family and her friends, the tribute she pays to the guest of honor at a cocktail party in the garden of her Georgetown mansion, her concern for her good friend Robert McNamara as he cares for his ailing wife, the way she softens in the middle of a tense conversation when a grandchild chases a ball into the room. But we also see her growing in the realization of the power of The Post and her own power as well.

Streep is not just superb at creating characters. She is a true ensemble player, never showboating but always seamlessly matching the rest of the cast, whether she is playing a notoriously awful singer in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a house band front woman in “Rikki and the Flash,” or a British Prime Minister in “The Iron Lady,” to mention just a few of her most recent roles.

In “The Post” she once again blends into the ensemble and she plays a character who is used to deferring to men. So it is easy to overlook how specific and layered she is in showing us a woman who was quiet, unsure, and, frequently condescended to by the men she worked with. As the shy heiress who unexpectedly became the publisher of The Washington Post when her husband committed suicide, Streep shows us the struggle, the spirit, and ultimately the determination of the woman who took the paper from a small local publication to fearless coverage of Watergate that brought down the Nixon administration.

As the movie begins, Graham is practicing for the biggest challenge she has had since taking over the paper that her father had given to her husband. The company is going to go public and she will have to persuade the bankers that even with the family maintaining control it is going to be a good investment. She is hyper-diligent; as one of the men points out, she is the only one who has read through all of the technical financial and legal documents, and she has made extensive notes for herself. We see her rehearsing her answers and when the time comes and she cannot get the words out, we see how hard she is trying and how much she wants to be the business executive the company needs. Watch Streep as Graham becomes in each scene less of the shy socialite who was unfailingly gracious to the paper’s sources, subjects, and rivals. Watch her become not just an executive but a journalist and a passionate defender of freedom of the press as she spars, first tentatively and then hitting her stride with Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) over his own blind spots in putting friendship before reporting the story. Watch her as her close friend, whose reputation she is about to help destroy, shocks her by showing her his own fundamental integrity, and just try to look anywhere else as she reads aloud a note from her daughter and as she quietly but firmly and authoritatively does at the end of the film what she could not do at the beginning – thinks for herself and makes a decision based on her own sure sense of what is right for the paper and the country.

This movie brings us back to a time when trust in government and media was high. The Pentagon Papers was the first major leak of the modern era, followed by the Cointelpro documents revealed which revealed abuses by the FBI and led to major reforms and increased oversight. The discovery that three Presidents and their administrations had lied about the prospects of success in Vietnam was the political equivalent of “the call is coming from inside the house.” It had a seismic effect on Americans already in the midst of one of the country’s most tumultuous periods of protest and upheaval.

This movie makes it clear that the press had its own credibility issue at the time. Mrs. Graham points out to Bradlee that his close friendship with President Kennedy compromised his integrity as a journalist, as he asks her not to let her close friendship with McNamara compromise hers.

On top of all that, and its uncanny timeliness, it is whalloping good story about secrets and honor and Bob Odenkirk all but steals the film from two of the biggest stars in Hollywood history with his performance as Ben Bagdikian, the reporter with a hunch and a Rolodex who tracked down the papers for the Post. The last scene cheekily sets it up as a prequel to “All the President’s Men.” We can hope both are a prequel to future films about reporters dedicated to telling the story.

Parents should know that this film includes brief footage of the war in Vietnam, reference to suicide, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Mrs. Graham change and why? What did Ben Bagdikian mean about being part of a revolution?

If you like this, try: “All the President’s Men” and Mrs. Graham’s superb autobiography

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Darkest Hour

Posted on December 7, 2017 at 5:48 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 26, 2018
Copyright 2017 Focus

A bitter debate is going on in Parliament. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has responded to Hitler’s invasion of other countries with appeasement and many of the politicians are with him. A combination of denial and sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire smugness of those who have colonized a quarter of the planet and are situated on the other side of the Channel makes them confident that they can work with Hitler. But it is increasingly clear to at least some of the politicians believe it is time to take a stronger stand. Is there someone they can call on to lead them in that direction?

There is, and he is still in bed, “insuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.” He is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, disappearing into the character and giving a dazzling performance worthy of the real-life man he portrays). The very inevitability of Churchill’s selection, no one’s first choice, a man who “has a knack for drawing out the very worst in those who are trying to help him,” according to his devoted but perceptive wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), increases the frustration of the elected officials around him, who continue to plot to undermine his determination to to go to war, if necessary, to fight Hitler’s takeover of Europe. “I’m getting the job only because the ship is sinking,” he says glumly but grimly. “It’s not a compliment. It’s revenge.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” gave us a bracing look at the turning point that ends this film, when certain catastrophic defeat was turned into a victory just by escaping, rescued with the help of a citizens’ armada of boats. That film paid tribute to the ordinary men who retreated to come back stronger. This film gives us another side of the story in a more traditional “great man” portrayal of history and it could not have a better subject. Churchill was a master of language, grandiloquent at a time when people needed to be inspired by a leader of vision, a deep knowledge of history, and shining integrity. The benefit of having a central character in Churchill is that he pretty much spoke in movie dialogue, hyper-articulate, wryly witty, and with an underlying patriotism rooted in compassion, not jingoism.

Churchill knows that it is not enough for him to be right about Hitler. He has to get the support of the other politicians and he has to get the support of the population. He knows what he will be asking them to do will involve unimaginable sacrifice. And there is no time. “We are looking at the collapse of Western Europe in the next few days,” says a general. “Should the public be told?” There is no time. And, as yet, there is no plan for a counter-attack and Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill’s good friend in the United States, tells him that Congress has prevented him from being of help.

Churchill also knows what it is to fail, publicly and miserably. Will he make mistakes again? Clementine assures him that he is wise because he has doubts. Even if Hitler wins, Churchill knows it is better to give him as much of a fight as possible. “Countries that go down fighting come back.”

The compressed time period and the urgent conversations with Clementine, member of Parliament, and the king (superbly played by Ben Mendelsohn) are riveting, bolstered by an urgent score by
Dario Marianelli and masterfully sinuous camerawork by Bruno Delbonnel and editing by Valerio Bonelli. The camera maneuvers through Churchill’s legendary wartime cabinet rooms (a must-visit for London tourists), showing us the cramped quarters and the fierce energy of what is going on.

Oldman disappears into the role, a performance like the famous Karsh portrait come to life. His Churchill is crafty, sometimes impatient, sometimes uncertain, but compassionate, and always sure of what his values are. The Churchills had a famously devoted love match, and Kristin Scott Thomas is impeccable in showing us Clementine’s elegance, and resolve.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” a character says. And with this film, director Joe Wright mobilized the language of film and presents us with an uplifting reminder of what the right person at the right time can do even under the direst circumstances.

Parents should know that this is a wartime story with tense peril and reference to violence and loss, some strong language, and smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: What should be factors in deciding when to intervene and when to negotiate? Why did the king change his mind? Read My Early Life, Churchill’s autobiography of his youth. Which self will you be today?

If you like this, try: “The King’s Speech,” “Dunkirk,” and some of the other movies about this towering figure of the 20th century, including the “First Churchills” miniseries about his ancestors.

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American Made

Posted on September 28, 2017 at 5:42 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence including guns, explosions, plane crash, murders, corruption
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 29, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 1, 2018

Copyright 2017 Universal
Director Doug Liman is not just the man behind stylish, politically savvy, exceptionally well-constructed action films like four “Bourne” films, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and the under-appreciated “Edge of Tomorrow.” He is also the son of the late Arthur Liman, the legendary Washington lawyer who was chief counsel for the United States Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, better known as Iran-Contra. His new film, “American Made,” is stylish, politically savvy, exceptionally well-constructed, and a smarter, more compelling take than the media on the real-life events his father helped uncover.

And he could not have chosen better than his “Edge of Tomorrow” star Tom Cruise, back from the dreary “Mummy,” and doing what he does best as the charming bad boy with a gift for flying and a need for speed, Barry Seal.

Even as the youngest pilot in TWA history, Seal is bored taking planes full of passengers back and forth to Bakersfield and Vancouver. So when a red-headed man with a beard named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) who seems to know everything about him shows up and asks if he’d like to do some flying for his country, and shows him the super-fast plane they’d let him fly, he accepts. “We’re building nations!” Schafer tells him. “All this is legal?” Seal asks for the first and last time. “If you’re doing it for the good guys,” Schafer tells him. “Just don’t get caught.” At first it is just reconnaissance, but then he starts some deliveries: cash in exchange for information. His contact is a Panamanian Colonel named Noriega. The CIA does not exactly mind. When Seal asks if a bag filled with cash in the hanger is his, Schafer smiles, “What bag?”

Word gets around about “the gringo who delivers,” and Seal is conscripted by three young, ambitious drug dealers to help them ship their product to the United States. One of them is named Pablo Escobar. Eventually, he is also delivering guns, as the CIA decides they should arm peasants to help them fight communists, though the peasants would rather sell the guns for money and, after Seal begins to bring them to the US for training in military operations, escape to live in America.

Like his antihero, Liman has great energy and panache, with a cheeky storytelling style that matches Seal, who can say (twice) “I tend to leap before I look” without an atom of ruefulness. “Do you trust me?” he asks his skeptical wife (Sarah Wright), with that Tom Cruise grin. “No!” she says, quite reasonably. So, she packs up in the middle of the night and moves with him when he tells her they have to go. He does not tell her it is because they are going to be arrested at dawn, but she gets the picture.

Seal is a cheerful rascal, but the movie shows us that he is more honest than the politicians and intelligence community. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan appear in archival footage, and Robert Farrior appears as Oliver North. Guns go back and forth from the Soviets to the PLO to the Israelis to the Contras to the drug cartel, and Seal gets paid, in cash, at almost every stop. Even after a family member is assassinated, “Godfather”-style, he “just keeps delivering that pizza.” And it is in no one’s interest to stop him. The community appreciates his business (the bank gives him his own vault), his job creation, and his generosity (there’s a Seal baseball field for the kids). Until it doesn’t work.

This is a smart, exciting, funny, and surprisingly sharp story, very much of its era, and very much of ours as well.

Parents should know that this film has extended peril and violence including guns, explosions, murders, plane crash, drugs and drug dealing, corruption, some strong language, reckless behavior, explicit sexual situations and nudity.

Family discussion: Who are the worst criminals in this story? Who, if anyone, is the hero?

If you like this, try: “Blow” and “Kill the Messenger”

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The Journey

Posted on June 16, 2017 at 2:56 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including violent images and language
Profanity: Some strong and bigoted language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: References to and depictions of historical civil unrest, violence, and murder
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2017

First thing, I’m going to ask you to overlook two obvious problems with this film.  The first is the awful title, pretentious and overused.  The second is the film’s complete distortion of the real-life facts and details in favor of a condensed and heightened portrayal that puts decades of delicate negotiations into one car ride.  Let’s just agree to get past both of those for a moment and we will return to them later, I promise.

Here is the truth.  Two men who were the bitterest of enemies at the center of The Troubles, one of the worst, longest, and most intractable conflicts in modern history, found a way to create an enduring peace.  One was Ian Paisley (played by Timothy Spall), an evangelical Protestant minister.  The other was Martin McGuinness (played by Colm Meany)  a leader of the Catholics.  Although they despised each other, and blamed each other for the violent attacks that led to thousands of deaths, they were statesmen enough to realize that no one would ever win if they kept fighting each other.  In  2007, when the two men visited the White House to see President George W. Bush, McGuinness said, “Up until the 26 March this year, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything — not even about the weather — and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there’s been no angry words between us. … This shows we are set for a new course.”

This movie imagines what the first conversation between the two men might have been, placing them in a streamlined, highly artificial, and very heightened dramatic context to have it.  This is not a documentary.  It is not history.  It is intended to be seen by people who have very little notion of the story.  So, the good news is that it is very accessible.  The less good news is that it will confuse the audience into thinking that this is how it happened, so be warned.

But it is a touching, inspiring, beautifully performed and very timely story about finding common ground even under the most bitter partisan circumstances.  And it is a powerful reminder that at the end of the day policy and statecraft and clashing ideologies may give rise to briefing books filled with charts and footnotes, but at the end of the day sometimes it just comes down to two people who agree to acknowledge their common humanity. “These men are anarchy,” one of the government officials says. “They are The Troubles.” But he might just as well say, “They are the answer.”

Parents should know that the theme of this film includes decades of civil unrest and murder during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, some graphic and disturbing images and references to sad deaths, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What was the turning point on the journey and why did it make a difference?  Read up on the real relationship between Martin and Ian, which evolved over decades, not one car trip.

If you like this, try: “In the Name of the Father” and “Maeve”

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