Steven Spielberg just turned 71 last month, and if his new film The Post is any indication, he has a lot of great movies left in him. There are directors over half his age who can't turn out a movie this tightly paced and ingeniously edited so that we get all the details we need, yet the pace seems to literally fly by. There are still some big films from late last year that I have yet to see, but at the moment, this sits on the top of my personal list.
This is not the rough and shocking Spielberg of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List. This movie is a melodrama, and a soft one at that. Where the greatness comes from is from the performances, and the way that Spielberg frames the story kind of like a great 1930s drama, filled with great actors in just about every role, and whip-smart writing that not only offers killer lines and monologues, but also fills in all the details we need, without giving us any unnecessary subplots or scenes. Everything is connected beautifully, and though some cynics may complain about the light touch the film occasionally uses (there is a lot of Spielberg's stylistic soft lighting here), no one can deny what an effortlessly crowd-pleasing movie this is. It's a great entertainment that manages to tell the story swiftly without losing any of the power of the story.
It is also probably one of the more timely movies I have seen lately. Despite being set in 1971 (and there are a lot of great period details here), the movie could be set in any time period, and will likely join other great films about journalism such as All the President's Men and Spotlight. This is a story about the Washington Post before it became the nationally respected paper it is known as today, and long before Watergate. Lead editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, getting his best role in a while) is forced to watch as the New York Times scoops the Post on just about every story. The Post is mostly regarded as a second-tier newspaper, and is not taken very seriously within the industry. And things do not look better for the paper now that Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, certain to get another nomination for this) is in charge of things.
Kay is not a confident woman at this point in time. She is unsure of herself, as well as her ability to run the paper that has been left to her. Not only that, but the all-male board of directors that she has to deal with do not make it much of a secret that they do not like the idea of taking orders from a woman, much less her. It seems that the paper may collapse under her watch, but then something happens. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a former top aide to Defense Secretary
Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), exposes the government’s decades-long
history of lies about Vietnam when he sent dozens of volumes of
government documents known as the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. This would seem to be yet another automatic victory for the Times, until the White House issues a court order to stop the Times from printing any of the Pentagon Papers.
With the Times stopped by the potential legal case, the Post sees its opportunity to print the Papers themselves. This brings about an internal war within the post. Should they print the information that they have, not only could both Ben and Kay wind up going to jail, but it might destroy the paper. There is also the issue of Kay being close friends with McNamara and many other people who have positions of power. If she has her paper print the information, it could destroy many dearly-held friendships. Ben understands this, as he was close friends with the Kennedys, and often sacrificed his journalistic integrity when they were in the White House in order to protect his friendship with them.
It's this kind of internal drama that makes The Post so fascinating and compelling. Hanks and Streep are not playing strong people here. Yes, they know that they need to get ahead and that this could be their chance to make their paper something, but they are also held back by personal doubts. Streep, in particular, seems the most tormented internally. There's a wonderful scene where she recounts a memory to a family member, and the way that Streep delivers the monologue is truly something to remember. Likewise, Hanks is playing an everyman here like usual, but he has a bit more edge than in some of his performances. He wants to get ahead, and knows what it takes to do it. Everybody in this film, including all the supporting players, are delivering memorable performances here. This is probably the best acted film overall I've seen in 2017.
It's impossible not to think of the current war going on between the current Administration and the Press while you watch this, and no matter what your thoughts on that situation may be, The Post gives a lot of food for thought. This is a film to be remembered, and I highly doubt anything will be able to diminish the power that it holds.
If The Commuter feels a bit familiar, it's probably because Liam Neeson has made plenty of action films just like this one. To make it all the more familiar, the film's director is Jaume Collet-Serra, who has helmed three previous Neeson action thrillers, very much like this. Everybody has been here before, and they are obviously old pros at this stuff by now. But it's not the familiarity that sinks the film this time around, it's how ludicrous and how much this movie stretches the realm of plausibility as it goes along. I understand the value of a movie asking the audience to shut off their brains for a while, but sooner or later, I felt the urge to start fighting back against the film and turn my brain on.
Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a former NY cop who has since become an insurance salesman in order to support his loving wife (an underused Elizabeth McGovern) and his college-bound son (Dean-Charles Chapman). The film kicks off with Michael having a very bad day. He is let go from his job because of corporate cutbacks, right as he is preparing to help pay for his kid to go to school. He stops at a local bar to drown his sorrows, where he runs into two former friends from his days at the police force, who are played by Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill. Given that these supposedly minor characters are both being played by well-known actors, expect them to have larger roles before the film is done. To make Michael's day even worse, he has his cell phone stolen from him while he is waiting for the train to take him home. All this, and he is still uncertain as to how he's going to tell his wife he lost his job today.
While on the train, Michael has a seemingly random encounter with a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a hypothetical question that he quickly learns is all too real. She tells him that there is someone on the train who "does not belong", and is going to get off the train on the very last stop. Before that happens, he must find out who that person is, and tag them with a tracking device which will allow that person to be followed and killed due to information they are holding. For Michael's actions, he will find $25,000 stashed away in a restroom on the train, with another $75,000 waiting for him if he pulls off the job successfully. Michael is not sure what's going on, but he checks the restroom she mentioned, and sure enough, there's the money she promised she would be there. Now Michael must make the decision on if he can really put someone's life he doesn't know in his hands. Not only that, but whoever wants him to pull this job apparently has eyes everywhere, and can watch his every move.
The Commuter clearly wants to be a Hitchcock-style thriller with an ordinary man thrust into a life or death situation, as well as uncovering a conspiracy that reaches the government and law enforcement, and may just hold the lives of his family at stake. But, Hitchcock at least understood how to play with his audience and keep them riveted. This movie goes so implausible so quickly that it's impossible to get invested. We can practically see the screenplay twisting and contorting itself to try to appear clever, when it really just needed to embrace its absurdity more in order to work. To be fair, Neeson does a great job as usual about taking this stuff seriously and making it seem like this isn't beneath his acting talents. But, this is definitely a case of him giving more effort than the material deserves.
The movie does throw in some lofty elements to its plot about shady government, the rich vs. poor mentality, and the economic crash of 2008, while the plot tries to keep us guessing with an element of paranoia, since Michael is not sure who on the train he can trust, especially since whoever is behind all of this is somehow watching his every move, and he constantly is getting threatening phone calls from the woman who started this whole mess, and tells him his own family will be killed if he does not pull off this job. But honestly, despite all the plot, the movie is really just about Liam Neeson doing his action hero act, beating people up, and getting involved in elaborate fights and increasingly elaborate special effect set pieces. If you've enjoyed similar movies he has done, you'll likely find something to like here. But the movie never quite worked for me, and the sillier it got, the more I started to resist whatever goodwill it may have created early on.
The movie is also quite deadly serious. I kept on waiting for the film to develop a sense of humor. And while there are a couple funny lines, they actually don't show up until it's almost all over, which is far too late. It's strange. The Commuter is a movie that seems afraid to fly off the rails, when it literally does long before the third act comes around.
Given its early January release and quiet marketing (the movie wasn't even screened in advance for critics), I expected much worse from Proud Mary. The movie is being advertised as a throwback to 70s blaxploitation action flicks, but director Babak Najafi seems less interested in having the bullets fly, and more interested in the melodrama that slowly builds between the characters. Maybe this will disappoint those who are looking for some quick action, but I found some of it kind of captivating at times, and there is a strong lead performance from Taraji P. Henson.
Henson's Mary is a hit woman for a Boston mob family run by the aging crime boss Benny (Danny Glover). We witness her pull off one of her hits in the film's opening scene, where she murders a man she was sent to kill. But then, something happens that she didn't expect. She finds the man's young son in the next room, headphones on and engrossed in a video game, completely oblivious to what has just happened right outside his bedroom door. This moment sticks with Mary, and we find her one year later stealthily keeping an eye on the kid, Danny (an effective Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who after losing his father fell on hard times, and is now doing errands for a rival crime family. When the boy passes out from hunger right there on the street after the boss he works for refuses to feed him and beats him for stealing money from him, Mary takes the kid under her wing, and brings him to her apartment.
Proud Mary definitely echoes 1994's The Professional, with its story of a violent killer who comes to protect and eventually care for an orphaned child. In Mary's case, she makes the bad decision to get involved and kill the boss Danny used to work for after she finds out how he mistreated him. This could potentially spark a mob war between the two crime families, who are already at a shaky agreement over territory that seems to be on the verge of crumbling. Mary seems conflicted by her actions. She knows that if she speaks up, she puts both her own life and Danny's in danger. She also doesn't know how to tell the kid that she was the one responsible for his father's death. She does her best to shield the kid from the truth, but it's inevitable that it will eventually come out, and Mary will find herself being targeted by and fighting against the "family" that raised her to be what she is.
One thing that does set the movie apart from dozens of crime thrillers just like it is that the movie does not depict Mary as a hardened killer. Yes, she obviously is good at her job, but she also seems to feel every kill she makes in the film, and it affects her on some level. Henson is giving an emotional and effective performance here, as she tries to deal with the consequences her actions will bring, while at the same time doing her best to stay confident and strong in front of the people around her. Mary is tough, but she is human. She takes Danny under her wing at first out of guilt from what happened one year ago, but she then begins to genuinely care about the kid, and wants to get out of the crime family for his safety, as well as her own. This drama, along with the individual relationships she shares with her boss Benny and his son Tom (Billy Brown), whom she used to be in love with, is what makes up a majority of the running time. This is a much more quiet and dialogue-driven crime thriller than you might expect.
It's not until well past the hour mark of this roughly 90 minute movie that we get our first major action sequence, and while it is appropriately intense in all the right ways, the movie could have used a bit more of it, especially given the genre and films that the director was using as inspiration. Don't get me wrong, it's kind of a nice surprise that Proud Mary is more interested in character interaction and not just violent shootouts, but it does seem to keep us waiting for the inevitable action a bit too long for its own good. I can see certain audience members getting restless. It never quite ratchets up the tension to the level that we expect walking in.
I am recommending Proud Mary on the strength of the performances, and some of the on-screen relationships, which come across as being fairly strong. As long as you don't expect this movie to be an action thrill ride, there's plenty to admire here. It's certainly nothing original or earth shattering, but for what it is, it's easy enough to enjoy.
2015's Paddington movie was the rare instance of Hollywood taking a beloved children's character, and paying it with the utmost respect. It was sweet and old fashioned, yet still felt relevant without having to resort to gross out gags and out of place adult humor. And thanks to its quaintly beautiful storybook visuals, which often brought to mind the work of Wes Anderson, it was a beautiful film to boot. Three years later, Paddington 2 has arrived, and none of the charm and warmth has been lost. This is a smart and frequently funny film headlined by a game cast. And yes, that includes the CG bear at the center of it all.
It's been some time since the events of the last film, and the little bear Paddington (once again wonderfully voiced by Ben Whishaw) has settled into his life in London, and has found himself at home not just with his human family, the Browns, but also with his many neighbors, who all regard Paddington with the utmost respect. Speaking of the Browns, they are each having their own individual challenges, which Paddington seeks to help them out with whenever possible. Father Henry (Hugh Bonneville) is going through a mid-life crisis after he was passed over for a promotion at work, mother Mary (Sally Hawkins) craves adventure after working on illustrations for children's adventure stories, teenage daughter Judy (Madeline Harris) has started up her own newspaper after finding an old printing press, and son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) is going through a bit of an identity crisis as he tries to fit in at his new school. Fortunately, now only do the Browns have Paddington to keep things in order, but they still have their housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) to help out.
Back home in Paddington's homeland of Peru, his beloved Aunt Lucy (voice by Imelda Staunton) is nearing her 100th birthday, and the little bear is desperate to find the perfect gift to give her. While exploring an antique shop run by the kindly Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), he comes upon an intricate pop up book of London's landmarks that is seen by many as a rare collector's item. Knowing that his Aunt would love to see where he is currently living, Paddington becomes determined to make the money to buy the book for her, and begins taking on various odd jobs around the neighborhood as a window washer. Little does he realize, he's not the only one with his eye on the book, although for much more nefarious reasons. It seems that the old book holds secrets in its illustrations that can lead to a location of a fabled treasure that once belonged to a wealthy circus performer. A washed up West End theater actor named Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant, wonderfully hamming it up) sees this as his way out of doing dog food commercials, and back to respectable theater work. He dons a disguise to steal the book, and when Paddington catches him in the act, the thief manages to escape, while the bear is found at the scene of the crime by the police and wrongly assumed guilty. From that point on, the movie goes into two separate plots, as Paddington seeks to make the best out of being imprisoned by making friends with the other prisoners, while the Brown family tries to clear his name.
Paddington 2 manages to up the stakes and scope of the original film, while at the same time not sacrificing any of the charms that made it a success. In some ways, this movie might be even more charming. The cast is certainly delightful, with many acclaimed British actors giving this their all and delivering winning performances. Hugh Grant, in particular, seems to be having the time in his life in his villain role, playing a character who is outwardly charming, but on the inside a bit of a cad, as well as a buffoon who is never quite as clever as he seems to think he is. Another standout is Brendan Gleeson as "Knuckles", a prisoner whom Paddington befriends while in jail by introducing him to his favorite cuisine - marmalade sandwiches. There are cute visual gags, such as when Paddington is put in charge of the prison laundry, and turns all the prisoners' garbs pink, as well as some clever puns and word play humor. Returning director and co-writer Paul King has wisely not tried to shake things up too much, and instead plays on the strengths of the first movie, without repeating himself or making this out to be a complete retread.
Also like before, the movie is a wonder to look at. King uses a lot of storybook-style visual tricks in certain scenes, and even relies on traditional hand-drawn and stop motion animation in certain moments, such as when Paddington is looking through the rare pop-up book for the first time, and visual effects bring the images to life. There are some inventive set pieces to look out for, and just like before, he is able to make London appear charming and quaint, while not ignoring the more dangerous or adventurous elements of the city. And of course, there is Paddington himself, who has been brought to life with some of the best CG effects out there. He never once looks out of place with the human actors, and every piece of fur on his body right down to his expressive face have been realized masterfully. The effects work is so good that his animated response to some of the more emotional climactic moments makes these scenes all the more effective.
Paddington 2 doesn't have the surprise of the original, but that's because we know what to expect, and the movie doesn't let us down in the slightest. This is as warm, funny and as smart a children's film as you are likely to find in cinemas right now, and it's entertaining enough that adults can watch this on their own, as well they should. Nobody could possibly be too old to enjoy filmmaking this clever.
For years, Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball) has been famous for not just his airtight dialogue, but also for the way it's delivered. He seems to be able to put out more information and more character development in a single scene than some screenwriters can fit into half a movie at times. His directorial debut, Molly's Game, is pretty much a showcase for his rapid-fire dialogue, as well as the kinetic energy that frequently accompany it. At nearly two and a half hours, it does go on a bit long, but there is no denying the skill and enthusiasm of his writing.
Molly's Game is pretty much all information and dialogue, and the way that it is delivered by its first-rate cast can sometimes feel like it's being delivered at a mile a minute. There were even a couple times when I wanted the movie to slow down a little, as Sorkin seems to be throwing out one detail after another. The movie's narrative also jumps around to different time points, so it can be a little hard to follow at certain moments. Despite all this, there is enough stuff that works here to keep you ensnared by the true story (with names changed, except for the main character) of Molly Bloom, the infamous "Poker Princess" who made a fortune holding illegal gambling games with the rich and powerful, and Hollywood celebrities. With a strong performance by Jessica Chastain as Molly, as well as an equally noteworthy supporting turn from Idris Elba (who gets to end 2017 on a good note after appearing in back-to-back disappointments The Dark Tower and The Mountain Between Us), as well as Sorkin's trademark style and humor, Molly's Game may be flawed, but it's still well worth watching.
As the movie opens, we learn that Molly Bloom was at one time on the path to the Winter Olympics, performing on the ski team, and being driven by her demanding and perfectionist father, Larry (Kevin Costner, very good in a small role). A mishap on the ski slope during the qualifying run ended that dream, and Molly headed to California a year later in order to get away from her family and to just figure out what she wanted to do with her life. (She had been building a path to law school, but Molly was burned out on that as well.) Molly has no money when she comes to L.A., and is sleeping on a friend's couch, when she happens to get involved in the world of underground high stakes poker due to a man she met while working as a waitress at a cocktail bar. The poker games are filled with media moguls and celebrities playing for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even though Molly doesn't understand the game at first, she is a quick learner as she watches the game being played, and keeps track of everyone's money while they play, recording their amounts into a spreadsheet.
Molly quickly learns how to set up her own game in a posh hotel suite, and before long, the biggest and brightest names in Hollywood are playing at her table. Again, all the names except for Molly's has been changed, so we never find out who these people actually were. One player at Molly's table is a young actor described only as "Player X" (Michael Cera, in a rare dramatic turn), who apparently was one of the biggest young actors at the time, but he ended up destroying Molly's reputation after she turns him down when he asks for preferential treatment. Losing all her players because of Player X, Molly is forced to start up a new game in New York City, where instead of the Hollywood elite, her players are some of the wealthiest people in the world. Over time, Molly becomes addicted to drugs in order to keep up with her lifestyle, and when the Russian and American mob start to get involved, the FBI start tracking her and eventually show up outside her apartment.
This storyline is interwoven with one that takes place two years later, where Molly is broke and facing indictment, and must turn to attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her in court. He is fascinated by her story, and even though she can't afford his services, he takes her on as a client and is willing to look beyond the tabloid headlines. All the while, Molly herself narrates the story with the kind of speed and precision we have come to expect from an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. When she explains how she ran her games with great detail, it can sometimes feel like information overload. And to be honest, the legal scenes were not as interesting to me as the scenes depicting Molly running her games. But what keeps our interest throughout are the performances by Chastain and Elba. Michael Cera is great as well as the mysterious Player X, and it can be fun to speculate his real identity afterward. (It is rumored to be Tobey Maguire.)
Molly's Game touches on themes such as addiction in various forms (gambling, drugs, alcohol), and getting in too deep when crime syndicates start to get involved. But it really is the personality and fierce determination of Molly Bloom, and the performance Chastain gives here, that kept me involved. There are a couple moments that do feel a bit false, such as a scene late in the film where Molly and her father sit on a park bench. It's well-acted and all, but it feels like a quick way to get a lot of exposition and character relationship out of the way. We also pretty much know how the story is going to end up from the start of the film, an approach I am not a fan of when I am not initially familiar with the story, having not read the real life Molly Bloom's tell-all book, on which the film is based. It's pretty much up to Sorkin's dialogue and the performances to carry the film, and at least they do an excellent job here. I just felt like there could have been more surprises if the movie did not use the flashback approach.
Molly's Game is being groomed as an Oscar contender, and while I think the screenplay and lead performance by Chastain are likely to get nominated, I can't really see this being one of the big winners. It's a very good movie, yes, but there's going to be a lot of competition going into wide release throughout January and February. At the very least, Sorkin has proven that he can direct as well as he writes. Having been a fan of his work for years, that's hardly a surprise.
Insidious: The Last Key is a fairly effective shock-dispensing device. Yes, it relies mostly on jump scares, and ghostly figures darting by just out of frame for most of its scares. But, just like the previous movies, it's better made than the norm, and features a winning performance by Lin Shaye as Elise Rainier, the psychic woman who has been the heart of the franchise since the beginning. Screenwriter Leigh Whannell has been smart to focus more on her as the films have continued, and this entry may be the most tightly focused yet on the character.
In an extended opening flashback, we see Elise as a young girl (Ava Kolker) living in a house in New Mexico that overlooks a prison where executions are regularly carried out. This is probably not the best place for a girl with the ability to see and communicate with ghosts to grow up in, but even so, her home life is not a happy one. She and her younger brother Christian (Pierce Pope) live in fear of their physically and emotionally abusive father (Josh Stewart), while their sweet mother (Tessa Ferrer) does her best to keep calm and order. After years of abuse and a family tragedy, Elise fled home, leaving her family behind. Fans of the franchise know where Elise went from there. As she grew older, she decided to use her psychic gift to help those who are being tormented by angry spirits and demons. With the aid of her comic relief ghost hunting duo, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), Elise has frequently dealt with the more evil and violent elements of the afterlife.
The plot proper truly begins with Elise's past catching up with her, as she's asked to perform a job at her childhood home. Its current occupant (Kirk Acevedo) claims to be bothered by disembodied voices, and a lot of strange sounds he cannot explain. As Elise begins her investigation, she learns some terrifying things, and not all of them paranormal. Given what she learns, we kind of wonder why the man living there invited her in the first place, since it was almost certain she would stumble upon what she eventually finds out. Regardless, there is a demon afoot, one with keys for fingers who wants to be set free into the land of the living. This will force Elise to confront her past, be reunited with her brother Christian (played as an adult by Bruce Davison), and discover a few things that will lead into events that happened in the very first Insidious movie. (Just like 2015's Insidious: Chapter 3, this is a prequel that sets up events that happened in the first film.)
Insidious: The Last Key does not always make sense, and it's a bit more workmanlike than previous entries. But, considering the fact that it's being dumped into theaters the first weekend of January (a notorious release date for films the studios aren't exactly confident in), it's much better than you might expect walking in. Credit goes to director Adam Robitel, who does get off a few suspenseful scenes, as well as some superior sound editing, which really makes every floor creek and even the sound of a toy whistle (an important plot element I won't go into for the sake of spoilers) unnerving. For its screenplay, Whannell is not exactly doing anything new here, but he does manage to touch on some personal and human themes here, such as family abuse and abandonment, and survivor's guilt. And even if some of the payoffs for the scares could be better here, there's still some good stuff to look out for.
But as always, it is Lin Shaye who carries the film. She brings more emotion and human interest than there probably was in the script, and she is just great to watch. She's sympathetic, strong, and you really do feel every emotion she goes through as the story puts her through the wringer as she is tormented by demons (both physical and personal) on a seemingly non-stop basis. She is able to sell not just her character, but also the somewhat loopy writing. Even when everybody around her are making dumb decisions or acting like they're in a standard horror movie, she lifts things up with her performance, and makes it much more enjoyable with just her presence. I don't know how much longer Whannell can drag this story out, but as long as Shaye is there to lead the way, I have a feeling I'll have a lot more fun watching it than I would without her.
Insidious: The Last Key offers plenty of quick jolts to make audiences jump and laugh about afterward, and that's about all it aims for. If that's all you're looking for in a thriller, go and enjoy. Even if it does collapse quite a bit during the final moments, the movie creates enough tense atmosphere that I can say I had fun watching it. Just don't try to think too hard about it when it's over. These movies are not for thinkers.
I am a rabid movie fan since 1984 who calls them as he sees them. Sometimes harsh, but always honest, I offer my 'reel opinions' on today's films. I don't get money for my reviews, and I have to pay to get into every movie I see (even the really awful ones), so what you will see here is the true reaction of a man who is passionate about film. - Ryan Cullen