by Philip Price
As it goes with these adaptations of popular dystopian YA franchises it is best to know from which perspective a review is coming and how passionate the (re)viewer is about the source material they have just witnessed adapted for the big screen. Warning: I have not read James Dashner's version of the "chosen one" narrative so, for me, ‘The Maze Runner’ series sits somewhere comfortably in between the gold standard that is ‘The Hunger Games’ and the deplorable ‘Divergent’ series that couldn't even muster enough fandom for Lionsgate to follow all the way through on it (I guess the first one was fine). ‘Maze Runner’ is nestled comfortably in between these two opposite ends of the spectrum though, because it is more or less a different take on the exact same story ‘Divergent’ tried to pull, but done so in a much more enthusiastic manner (which is saying something as these ‘Maze’ sequels have lacked the energy of that initial flick) as well as being much less convoluted with the main detractor being they have failed to create anywhere near the emotional investment on the part of the audience in these characters; sorry, Tommy, Teresa, and Brenda, but you are no Katniss, Peeta and Gale. That said-there are A LOT of characters in these movies as tends to be the case in each of the examples cited thus far and by virtue of this requirement there is ample opportunity for solid talent to enlist themselves as part of a guaranteed series of jobs and to that point it is nice to see the likes of Barry Pepper, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen and Walton Goggins in supporting roles where they are hamming it up the best each of them can even if at least three of them are playing the same type of ringleader role. To this end and to the end that I'm thankful 20th Century Fox decided against splitting this finale into two movies “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” is a well-made and well-executed action thriller that is comprised of the same sequence of events again and again until our gang of ragtag heroes reaches the last standing city and faces the bad guys down once and for all. That may be a bit harsh as there are shades of honor on both sides of the line that make things more complicated than one might expect from such a film and there is a clear theme of loyalty that screenwriter T.S. Nowlin and franchise director Wes Ball have never strayed from, but much like WCKD, the evil corporate enemy in these movies, ‘The Death Cure’ delays the inevitable conclusion we all know is coming due to our genre conditioning just a little too long.
‘The Death Cure’ picks up about six months or so after the events of the previous installment, ‘The Scorch Trials,’ where our fearless leader Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and his friends that include Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Brenda (Rosa Salazar) as well as Pepper's Vince and Esposito's Jorge attempt to rescue a group of their friends from a train taking them to WCKD headquarters. That this train includes the likes of Minho (Ki Hong Lee) as well as Aris (Jacob Lofland) only motivates Thomas and friends even more. Not to mention, all involved from the original film are still reeling from the betrayal of Kaya Scodelario's Teresa as she's decided to go the way of WCKD and in the process exposed Thomas, their friends, and Vince's established community that took a nasty blow at the end of that previous film. You see, Thomas and his side of things are looking out for themselves and the ones around them that are immune from this sickness that has wiped out much of the planet while WCKD is searching to try and find a cure so that humanity no longer must deal with what has become known as the "The Flare" virus. Wait...who are we supposed to be rooting for here? Yeah, so neither side might have thought this thing out as well as they could have, but that they each genuinely believe they are doing the right thing makes the conflict at least somewhat engaging despite the fact Nowlin's script takes us from this high-stakes opening train sequence where our protagonists only accomplish part of what they desired to another series of action sequences where, in each one of them, a new character shows up at the last minute to *surprisingly* save their ass becomes obvious and predictable long before the two hour and twenty minute film even reaches its third act. ‘Scorch Trials’ traded in this same kind of repetitive storytelling, but the difference there was, as opposed to the limited scope of the first film, it dealt in a bigger and more wide-open canvas. And so, while the narrative was something of a journeyman-like story it was different enough from the first movie that it felt progressive if not actually moving the pendulum that much further. In ‘The Death Cure,’ it's as if Ball had maybe two to three actual sets with the remainder of the film either being shot on green screen or most of the frame being filled in with digital creations. Except for that opening train sequence none of this feels as if it were taking place in a tangible location and because of that the visual style that was so vibrant in the rich greens of the first film and so expansive in the tan-tinged look of the second is rendered flat and uninspired by the dingy darkness where much of this third film takes place.
It is somewhat disappointing that a series that began with so much promise would only, ultimately devolve into everything that it seemed it was trying to avoid in the beginning. ‘The Maze Runner’ deviated from the formula of the female lead surviving a failing dystopian societal structure and was instead little more than a stripped down, human survival story with plenty of mystery surrounding the circumstances to keep audiences intrigued. Thomas was the lead protagonist, sure, but there were a whole host of characters to allow our surrogate to slowly pull back the layers of whatever secrets might be hiding within the walls of the titular maze. This was that initial film's single greatest strength in that, while it had all the seeming components of the YA fad, it didn't force those components to adhere to any story beats. With the reveal at the end of the first film and the evolving big picture that included the zombie-like "Cranks" brought to us courtesy of ‘Scorch Trials’ it became more evident that ‘Death Cure’ would simply follow through on which side would eventually out-muscle the other and prevail in their method of ensuring humanity's survival. And for 143-minutes that is exactly what this movie does. It works its ass off to convince us that Clarkson's Ava Page is in fact the evil one in this scenario when there is a scene in a boardroom that features Page and Teresa arguing with a group of financiers stating their method is for the better as the idea of building bigger walls to protect themselves (which they've also tried) is only delaying the inevitable. In that instance, we are convinced that WCKD may in fact be the way to go even if their methods aren't exactly friendly to those immune to the virus. I mean, draining healthy kids of their blood to find a cure is arguably sacrificing a few for the greater good, but it is in this execution of their ideals where WCKD gets into trouble. Page is aware of this, but still sincere in her want to help people whereas Gillen's Janson is simply brought in to be a more sinister face of WCKD that allows the screenplay to justify Thomas's gang to act out in the way they see fit-which is, "leave our friends alone and let us go be healthy on an island alone." Again, I haven't read Dashner's series of novels and so these narrative shortcomings could very well come from the source material, but these are things that should have been ironed out in the adaptation process or even beefed up to make the moral conflict more relevant. Instead, ‘The Death Cure’ feels mostly like it's going through the motions with its blatant competency. No matter the fact almost everything about it screams ambition, what it wants to be and the actual product itself feel worlds apart. The drawback is that while it is indeed capable and can make a suitable enough film for fans of the novel (I assume), this isn't anything that reinvents the YA wheel, but more feels like the final nail in the coffin of a brand that has long since expired.
by Philip Price
“Phantom Thread,” the latest film from auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will be Blood”) that once again stars Daniel Day-Lewis (in what may very well be the actor's final on-screen performance, but probably isn't), centers around Day-Lewis's renowned dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock, and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who are at the center of British fashion in 1950's post-war London as Woodcock designs for royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants and dames alike. The appearance of Alma (Vicky Krieps) in Woodcock's routine then tends to upend every aspect of his life in slow, methodical, and often even conniving ways. This is an odd movie, but it wouldn't be a Paul Thomas Anderson movie if it wasn't mostly off-kilter and if it didn't go into the numerous layers of meaning and substance coated in what is a seemingly simple and straightforward narrative. This short summary is more or less what the plot of “Phantom Thread” entails, but “Phantom Thread” of course concerns itself with more than just the toppling of the structure that is Woodcock's life made relevant by the appearance of Alma, but more it is about the inner-dynamics of a relationship, the give and take that is necessary if even able to bring one's self to compromise in such a way. This is a question the film and Woodcock ponder endlessly as our protagonist is someone who seemingly knows what he wants and what he expects out of himself in his life and by living according to that standard never lets himself down and fulfills each of his expectations. This lifestyle also allows for his focus to lie solely on what he desires and to not be distracted by the passions or interests of another. In essence, “Phantom Thread” is about that struggle that naturally takes place in all of us that pulls between what society and tradition tell us we should want out of life that can often be opposed by our more personal desires and ambitions. That is, of course, unless your sole desire in life is to find a mate and pro-create. It is true that often our ambitions and desires remain a certain degree of selfish in that to solely give them their due would result in a life of satisfaction and maybe even one of great legacy, but one that lacks a certain meaning while fully giving over to what we're naturally pulled to accomplish in life leaves a greater sense of meaning if not as grand a legacy as one might have imagined for themselves. Either way, the meaning is what the individual makes of it and “Phantom Thread” is the journey of Woodcock having to learn that balance for the first time in his life as Alma is apparently the first in a long line of muses that challenges the meticulous and powerful mentality that Woodcock has effortlessly exuded over those in his life up to this point.
The canvas on which Anderson paints in this instance is maybe the most interesting facet of “Phantom Thread” as what Anderson is looking to discuss draws no obvious correlations to the fashion scene of 1950's London, but this is part of what makes the film ultimately so fascinating. The players and their personalities are established rather immediately-at least the sense of who they are and what their ultimate happiness or place of peace is, but the direction in which these personalities will take the film is largely up in the air and therefore what makes that different aspects painted across the canvas more enticing. That said, Anderson is exploring a lot of themes and unpacking a lot of stuff in the process of “Phantom Thread” that are done in such subtle and slight fashions for most of the runtime that it's hard not to roll your eyes a little bit. That this is something of an indulgent movie. Not that what it is attempting to tackle isn't tangible and real because the more specific it becomes the more precisely it will hit individual viewers, but as much as it may seem to be it is not the pretentious or conceited slog it might seem is implied. No, “Phantom Thread” is inherently about a pretentious person, but the film itself is deconstructing what makes this man tick and what makes this woman who desires to care for him and love him feel the way she does. Furthermore, it then addresses the assuredness of this pretentious protagonist because he would typically stand to put his new muse in her place by letting her know in obscenely dismissive ways that as much as she feels she may need him and want him that his life will go on perfectly and as planned without her. He doesn't need her. This mentality, this personality even-has conditioned both Woodcock and Cyril (a Saint in her own right) to be set in ways they are comfortable with to the point their routine is disrupted even at the sound of Alma's buttering her toast too loudly at breakfast. That Alma positions herself as more of a constant than any muse that has come before her is already altering the expectations of Woodcock as well as in Cyril, but the two come to adapt (or not adapt) in very different ways. It's clear that though these two have grown up together and are very much aware of one another's tendencies that they are not the same type of person and to see these paths diverge when the fork in the road that is Alma appears may not be the main point the film stays focused on as it progresses but is certainly utilized to compliment the evolving dynamic between Woodcock and Alma. More, it highlights the wonderful performance from Manville who, as much as Krieps goes toe to toe with Day-Lewis, plays Woodcock's equal most of the time if not becoming this matriarchal figure Woodcock needs in times when the man assumes his worth outweighs others. Playing what could be figures the audience already feels it knows such as the tortured artist or the muse, “Phantom Thread” quickly overcomes such presumptions by way of Anderson's unique approach to story and the way his conflicts unfold.
To step back from the film for a moment and inspect it from something of a more personal standpoint, my mother's side of the family-meaning her mom, my Nanny, and her parents as well as all five of her brothers-were British. I lived in England for a few years near the beginning of my life prior to moving back to the U.S., but my Nanny still resided near us, five minutes down the road in fact. That British influence never wavered and continues today through my own mom who returns every couple of years to England to visit her cousins and extended family and friends that remain there as her mother was the only one to ever leave with my grandfather. Near the very beginning of “Phantom Thread” as the seamstresses file into Woodcock's building for their shifts there is a shot where two of them assist our protagonist in dressing Gina McKee's Countess Henrietta Harding and the age, the haircut, and style of one of these seamstress’s glasses allowed her to look shockingly like a picture of my Nanny's mother that is my only reference to who this woman was. Suddenly, there she was; moving around the screen and operating in society in the years she would have been alive and potentially in a role like what she might have done on a day to day basis. Not only did this open the idea of who this lady might have been other than a picture in my grandparent's house, but it provided genuine insight into how detailed every aspect of this world Anderson and his team re-created for this film. It is to this point that, while Anderson's ability and desire to explore basic human emotions through even more interesting and unexpected avenues is the main objective of his creating art in the form of feature films, there is a joy and a dedication outside of the story elements that make the whole of the experience of watching a Paul Thomas Anderson film more enthralling. As if the set were a sacred temple, the costumes the fabric of the characters as much as they are their outer layer, and the performers a conduit not only for the words Anderson has impressed upon the page, but individuals in their own right who might bring their own presence and persuasions to these interactions, small conflicts, and the push and pull that helps them to chip away at their characters as the narrative progresses. In other words, it is clear how much Anderson loves making movies and the idea of making movies and what they can possess or represent in a defined package the multitude of feelings and ideas that might spring about at certain stages in our lives and development. It is an interesting, dare I say even fascinating, way in which to approach the viewing of a movie as well, but the approach to the craft that is apparent in the presentation of Anderson's films is something that cannot be ignored. This isn't because the techniques or choices are obvious or take one out of the story being told either, but more they are so unique and personal it is impossible not to notice them. This is more evident than ever in the way in which Anderson continuously unravels layers of his characters and who they are as the film goes on in ways that serve “Phantom Thread” the same way an action sequence or obvious dramatic sequence might serve a different kind of film.
It is this type of storytelling that might lead one to determine that “Phantom Thread” is rather boring or contains no plot in the traditional sense and while I found myself checking the clock on my phone a time or two throughout the course of the film this was more out of curiosity as to what point in the film we were or should be at and how much time Anderson had left to let unfold what he wanted to say. Any film that elicits the questions and thoughts about such precise feelings and moments of interaction between yourself and other human beings that makes rise for bigger questions about who we are in nature and why we are that way and on and on though, is certainly not a boring movie as it is the opposite of an empty chronicling of events. “Phantom Thread” is a meditative character study where one's reaction to the material will largely depend on whose perspective you see the events of the film from, either Woodcock's or Alma's. That is, until the last ten or so minutes of the film when it becomes apparent that the two have found the right measure of one another in each other's lives. It may all initially feel like executing so much to say something so exact and finite, but with such exactness comes a greater sense of substance and understanding. “Phantom Thread” does this in an exceptional fashion as I can't help but to want to watch it again as soon as possible to discover things I might have missed on my first viewing. It is a film that will initially leave you bewildered, unsure of how to feel or what there is to say in response to it, but as it settles the movie resonates in countless ways; venturing down avenues one might not have even been aware it dipped into. There is no need for me to tell you how great Day-Lewis is in his role of Reynolds Woodcock or how committed he was to the role of this fastidious fashion designer. There is no need for me to echo the praise of Jonny Greenwood's elegant and intimidating score that lingers over what feels like nearly every frame of the movie or how Anderson's cinematography seems to expose every caveat of the facade by lingering on the cracks and crevices of the human body that we cover with beautiful fabrics, but this is all part of the package and it is all as great as one may have heard or expect it to be based on reputation and/or previous credentials alone. Day-Lewis is undoubtedly the lead in the film and his presence is intoxicating as his face feels consistently ripe as if wearing the freshest coat of oils and lotions while the close-ups on the worn skin at the tips of his fingers as he pieces together dresses hint at the cracks to come in his strong facade. That he has fantastic hair and his face is as sharp as ever with its condescending arches-in his eyebrows, his mouth, and all only emphasize how transformative the actor is in every role. All of this is true, no question, but Manville and Krieps are the real stars of the piece. Krieps crafting Alma over the course of the narrative into someone who wants to get to know Woodcock in a way no one else ever has and in turn not only become a preserver of the Woodcock legacy, but a person, a presence he must rely on. Someone he needs in that delicate routine and that he wants to be a part of his time.
by Philip Price
In their fourth film together, director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson have seemingly set the bar too high with their previous three efforts that include “Unknown,” “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night” to make this as enjoyable as it probably is. You may also be familiar with Collet-Serra's style via last summer's sleeper hit “The Shallows,” but while the expert B-movie director and his late-in-life action star may have proved to be a collaborative dream team in the past when it came to crafting guilty pleasures the excitement within the relationship seems to have worn off a bit with their latest, “The Commuter.” It's funny because everything one could hope for from a Collet-Serra/Neeson collaboration is here in terms of the plotting, tension, and action spectacle, but while it is evident from the opening title sequence that Collet-Serra is going for something a little more nuanced than a movie like “The Commuter” might actually deserve the film ultimately falters in this ambition as it ends up feeling rather hastily put together via a rookie screenwriting duo (Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi) that was then seemingly revised by “Non-Stop” screenwriter Ryan Engle. This makes sense given “The Commuter” is more or less “Non-Stop” on a train, but no matter how little or how much effort was initially put in by Willinger and Blasi and/or how much of an overhaul Engle ended up doing the biggest problems with “The Commuter” still boil down to the screenplay and its slight excuse of a story. One can feel Collet-Serra attempting to infuse this thing with style and nuance as well as Neeson giving everything he seemingly has left in his aging body that might inspire him to continue the fight. The veteran actor is frazzled though, and that mentality is kind of present from the get-go. At this point we know the routine and we understand the stakes – “The Commuter” needed to do something to break the monotony as “Run All Night” did exceptionally well as compared to this, but instead this latest in the long line of varied actioners that compose Neeson's career resurgence as an action star is a middle of the road effort; something that looks the part and acts the part, but doesn't feel authentic in its portrayal of what it's supposed to be.
So yeah, in “The Commuter” Liam Neeson is an insurance salesman who commutes to work every day and through the course of the day we find out that not only has the poor guy, named Michael MacCauley, been let go, but also that he is a former cop who worked alongside Patrick Wilson's Alex Murphy for some time before retiring for reasons that don't seem to ever be made clear. This may or may not have something to do with the stock market crash of 2008 when MacCauley and his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), lost all their savings, retirement, etc. making it difficult for them now as their only son is getting ready to go away to college. This is all weighing on MacCauley's shoulders as he boards the train to head home. As such events might go, MacCauley is then approached by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who offers the vulnerable MacCauley a proposition he is unable to refuse. Joanna sets it up by phrasing it as an able task for an ex-cop that requires Neeson's character to track down a certain passenger of which all he knows are the person's name, their stop, and that they are carrying a bag. If MacCauley accepts he can have the $25,000 that has been stashed in one of the compartment restrooms and if he completes the task successfully he will gain an additional $75,000. Not a bad deal considering all he must do is identify a person and given his current circumstances. Naturally, things are a bit more insidious than Joanna initially lets on as Farmiga's character gives no reason for her visit, no idea as to her intent, or who she works for beyond her profession that entails reading different people and their personalities. This would hint at an interesting road for the film to take; Neeson's character getting to know different riders on the train to use deductive reasoning to narrow down the suspects and figure out who he is supposed to be escorting to whoever Joanna works for, but from the get-go MacCauly is more anxious than he is thoughtful leading to a series of over-aggressive, unplanned, and easily regretful mistakes that MacCauley doesn't seem to give a second thought to. This all quickly devolves into Neeson using his former cop skills to do some detective work that feels so sporadic there is no meaning or connective tissue to which the plot then seemingly realizes it must answer these odd, but convenient in terms of intrigue questions to iron out the third act and so rather than a bonkers race against time “The Commuter” becomes an exposition dump that doesn't mesh with the director and star's prior efforts.
You might be thinking that if my qualms are around the weakness in plot and that plot's execution that I'm missing the point of these annual Neeson actioner's, but I assure you that is most definitely not the problem as I've often embraced these excursions for exactly the reasons of them being able to execute a rather thin or weightless plot in a manner that is exceedingly engaging and ultimately smarter than one might initially give them credit for. I was naturally hoping to do the same with “The Commuter,” but this one isn't enough fun to excuse what might be the most blatant in terms of lazy storytelling. Again, this is largely from a perspective of a guy who thought “Run All Night” was the best of the Neeson/Collet-Serra collaborations and was therefore looking forward to what this next film might entail as that previous picture broke away from the polished and perfected glean of both “Unknown” and “Non-Stop” while still squarely fitting into a genre. “Run All Night” was dirty and grimy and while recognizable as a certain kind of film, it didn't necessarily adhere to any one set of expectations. To be fair, “The Commuter” doesn't necessarily adhere to any kind of expectation considering it exists within the same B-movie genre as those films, but it doesn't fulfill any of them either. There are some attempts by the script to be about something more just as there are obvious strides taken by Collet-Serra to make what was on the page stand out, but while the premise is intriguing enough and the direction precise in working with what it must work with the final product simply isn't as thrilling, interesting, or fun as it should be. This isn't even a case of expecting the film to be one thing and it failing to meet those expectations by being something entirely different, but rather it is a film that attempts to be both a rehash of what we've seen these collaborators attempt before by enlisting a different tone and a set of more vague plot devices that doesn't end up working in any entertaining fashion. Maybe that's a little too harsh as, before you find out what the deal is with Neeson having to track down this particular individual in order to save his floundering financial life there is some intrigue and it's always fun to watch as Neeson's domineering presence integrates itself with others and how his special brand of justice goes about achieving his objective-even if the screenwriters set-up one way of deriving such information and then completely abandon it in the face of Liam Neeson: action hero!
If this is disappointing news to you, trust that it was disappointing to this reviewer as well. “The Commuter” is a film that pitches Neeson as this ex-cop turned insurance salesman that is a generally good husband and an invested father (he reads the books his son has been assigned in school, so they can work through essays and book reports together) and so we get this very middle-class sense. This idea that the film is really wanting to hit home the everyman quality of MacCauley that is evidenced even further by the first extended piece of dialogue Neeson spouts in the film. There is a sense that Neeson is simply trying to make it paycheck to paycheck while putting enough away to save for his son's college tuition and catch-up on the retirement he and his wife may no longer be able to enjoy as blissfully as they expected. This stands to reason as, once MacCauley boards the train and the movie introduces us to the fellow passengers-both in the ones MacCauley knows from his time commuting and those he is unfamiliar with-there is very much this spirit in the themes of the movie that tell the audience it's a corrupt world and that there is no room in this world for the little guy to get a piece of the pie. This mentality even that, despite being a soldier for a good cause that a lot of the time more soldiers end up casualties than they do heroes who prevail for the cause they were initially fighting for. It's a pessimistic view to have, but not completely wrong or as easily dismissed as most would like to believe it to be. The best line in the film references an old Irish saying that goes, "If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at who he gives it to." It's a solid jab and it works in the context of what the movie essentially becomes in that of a rallying cry for good people to do the right thing instead of fall to the greed or corruption of a system that only seems to reward those who are out only for themselves. This is all well and good, but for a movie that begins as a mystery based around one man's ability or inability to assess those around him and not simply judge these books by their covers that becomes an off the wall action/thriller where the action is spastic and the thrills minimal “The Commuter” is a movie that time and time again doesn't manage to deliver on its own promises or follow through on its (not so big, but honorable) ideas. Wilson and Farmiga are both criminally underused here with the obvious joke that this isn't a tie-in to “The Conjuring” universe no doubt already being told many times, but still disappointing it doesn't pull a ‘Split’-like mid-credits reveal as that might have made this underwhelming crime drama more satisfying. At least the movie credits its own circumstances to be as outrageous as they indeed are hinting that maybe next time Neeson and Collet-Serra will be ready to truly go off the rails in the best way possible.
by Philip Price
Immediately after walking out of director Alexander Payne's latest, “Downsizing,” I wasn't sure what to think. My first thought was that it was all over the place, but in a commendable way. I think I like it, I thought. I'm still pretty sure I enjoyed it and it has been quite some time since I saw it. Everything about the film though, is designed to upend your expectations of it. Being an Alexander Payne film titled “Downsizing” one immediately assumes this is will be a raw human drama about a middle-aged white male losing his job and realizing his life never amounted to the ambitions of his youth while likely coming to terms with the passing of time and its fleeting nature. It would be fair to assume that, but this “Downsizing” is not. Rather, the consistently good yet similarly themed films of the writer/director seem to have sparked a need for a different kind of endeavor in Payne and while “Downsizing” still shares many ideas (maybe one too many, even) that have very clearly sprung from what is on Payne's mind now he certainly doesn't go about conveying them in the fashion one might expect given his filmography. Rather, “Downsizing” is very much designed to be one of those sincere, but rather goofy high-concept comedies of the nineties. One where everything in the world of the movie isn't that bad for our protagonist even though they seem to be discouraged by the results of what they've become i.e. lame adults. One where the production design relates this new technological advancement to something familiar a la the microwave "ding!" that goes off each time the shrinking procedure is complete. One where the score is heavily made-up of those cheesily inspiring springs that intend to make the audience really feel the wonder of the moment at the film's main discovery (think “Jurassic Park”). I guess, in a lot of ways, “Downsizing” is like “Jurassic Park” as it is a movie that revels in a discovery that is potentially the greatest thing since landing on the moon while also being one where man plays God; warning us of the potential dangers of technology. These advancements in both films, one being cloning dinosaurs and the other being shrinking humans, are thought of inherently as beneficial. While “Downsizing” ultimately seems to be for the better it doesn't shy away from the controversy that grows to surround the procedure and so, unlike “Jurassic Park,” Payne isn't preaching that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. He seems to think we should. He knows we need to do something and “Downsizing” is a way of saying as much about saving the planet without being overly serious or hackneyed about it. Too bad it doesn't have dinosaurs though.
In “Downsizing,” we begin in Norway before venturing to Turkey as we see Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) crack and then, five years later, show proof of his findings to the world as he's already shrunk or, excuse me, downsized himself, his wife, and 34 other people who’s over four years of waste can now be held in less than a single average-sized trash bag. Why do this you might ask? The initial idea is the fact over-population is key to humanity's greatest issues and the multiple threats to our species that come because of such. Asbjørnsen describes it as "cellular reduction" and seems to hope that if everyone were to "get small" they could save their planet that is currently destined to wipe out humans faster than it has any other intelligent species that has walked its surface. From here we travel across the globe and a few more years down the road to Omaha, Nebraska to a world where downsizing is possible and the growing pains of such a large societal transformation are very clearly being felt. We are introduced to Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) who are a rather standard suburban couple whose, wait for it...reality has failed to live up with where they thought they'd be at this point in their lives. The Safranek's still live in Paul's childhood home with Paul still working as an occupational therapist given he couldn’t finish med school as he returned home to take care of his ailing mother. It's unclear what Audrey does for work, but Wiig unfortunately plays the character as little more than a one-dimensional housewife who complains about the lack of what she doesn't have until it comes time to do something about it at which point she backs out of the deal. You see, while attending a high school reunion the Safranek's discuss with Dave (Jason Sudeikis) and Carol Johnson (Maribeth Monroe) why they decided to "downsize". While the whole deal about helping the planet is still relevant for Paul, Dave emphasizes the more lavish aspects of the change as the value of one's money goes up exponentially allowing someone who lives on a $50,000 annual salary in the regular-sized world to live like a king once "downsized". Given Paul and Audrey have had some financial troubles during looking to buy a new house the Safranek's decide to consider "downsizing" at one of the more popular communities for small individuals knows as Leisureland. After deciding to go through with the procedure Paul comes out the other side anticipating the arrival of Audrey who never shows. Audrey has backed out at the last-minute leaving Paul on his own as a five-inch man in a world he doesn't know. This sets in motion a chain of events for Paul that changes his life in ways he never imagined, Christoph Waltz's Dusan and Hong Chau's Ngoc factoring largely into these reasons, but this is a change that ultimately seems to be for the better even if it is wholly unexpected.
Of note is the fact “Downsizing” starts nearly as strong as it finishes if not muddying the waters several times in between and even during some of its best moments. The film really nails the smaller aspects of this change in society and all the factors that might need to be considered rather than neatly brushing over them thus making the first half hour of the film more layered and complex than might initially be expected. “Downsizing” is nothing short of ambitious, this is for sure and it is commendable that Payne would go to such lengths to try and convey his vision of what is otherwise a rather small-scale story. This very well could have been another Payne movie where Damon's character, who is completely serving as an audience surrogate here as he lacks anything resembling a personality, goes through a course of life-altering events only to realize these seeming blows to his routine were what would set him up for the unexpected facets of life that would instead reinvigorate his existence. This would have been simple enough and something Payne could have done without batting an eye at this point, but “Downsizing” instead contains a sequence in which Damon's Paul goes through this process of "getting small" and must have all his dental work undone, is shaven completely, and then is taken off the hospital bed as if he were a cookie on a cooking sheet. It is far and away the most visually ambitious thing Payne has ever done and the gag as well as the consideration of how each aspect is completed is great. It will be almost too easy to write off “Downsizing” for feeling like a movie where the story and themes the writer/director wanted to explore weren't specific enough and so, to make them more interesting, Payne and writing partner, Jim Taylor (“Sideways”), decided to devise a social satire of sorts where they get to discuss a number of topics that include global warming, mass consumption, white privilege, and the tendency of man to revert even their freshest of fresh starts into a world of the same bad habits all without any of it feeling too heavy. It's a lot to contemplate and even more to explore in the context of a piece of art which is why “Downsizing” ends up being Payne's magnum opus of sorts at a lengthy two hours and 15 minutes. This overall ambition of the project and the scope with which Payne has been able to pull this off is genuinely impressive and makes for an inspired experience on its own, but is it necessarily as groundbreaking or eye-opening as the director hoped it to be when imagining the possibilities as he crafted the script? Probably not. Still, there is plenty to like and latch onto here as I'm more inclined to be intrigued by a failed experiment than a safe retread and Payne very easily could have gone the route of the latter at this point in his career, That said, “Downsizing” is not a complete failure, but rather it is an inspired piece of storytelling that one won't be able to tell where it is going and will be genuinely surprised both by the lengths at which it goes in order to flesh out its ideas as well as with many of the characters and how they strike you in terms of that aforementioned tone. There are no doubt moments in the film that will determine whether “Downsizing” is the kind of movie one can jive with, but I was able to stick with the movie through its two most obvious examples of this and more, I liked these decisions and couldn't help but to want to know what happened next in the odyssey of Paul even if Paul is the least interesting aspect of his own story.
There is a scene early in the film where Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern participate as these kinds of paid programming talking heads that sell those considering "downsizing" on the idea of it by telling them how much Dern's character paid for her diamond bracelet and matching earrings. It is a measly eighty-eight dollars or something of the like due to the facts the diamonds are so small and therefore the cost so low. This is seemingly Payne's way of reminding us that everything is about perspective. That, how we frame things is almost more important than the thing we're framing depending on how we want people to perceive it. Maybe therefore the director decided to go so big with his latest endeavor, but while it could be said that “Downsizing” is the least sharp of all of Payne's observations and the gimmick of shrinking exists to distract from this fact, this is still a film with a lot to say, chief among it this idea that deals in how much we're hurting the planet and our insufficient efforts to make actual change. We're doing things to make ourselves feel better, but that aren't really making change because we're not committing to larger changes that are needed for larger change. Chau's Ngoc is the stand-out when it comes to emphasizing this idea though, and she does so in spades. Ngoc is a woman who isn't sold on any preconceived notion of what she deserves or what her life was supposed to be due to the circumstances of her birth. She expects nothing and is therefore told she is strong because she has been through so much and isn't someone who openly grieves or regrets what she has encountered because she had no expectations for anything else. She takes what she is dealt and makes the best of it. She is someone as genuine as you could hope to find because she doesn't preach about what is right and what is wrong, but rather she walks the walk; doing work after work in good faith that she is making a change in these peoples live who are less fortunate than she. The test with Chau's character comes with how the actor characterizes this individual. Chau's performance is so bold, so out-there, and rather broad in that it is outrageously funny (maybe even a bit too much for the tone of the film or any film), but like everything in her life, Ngoc makes the tone of “Downsizing” fit her own intentions and mission and not the other way around. Of course, given the film's biggest detractor up to this point was a complete lack of interesting characters it was both refreshing and enlightening to learn of this wholly unique individual. Waltz's Dusan is a simple character that could be summed up in a few words, but he has some of the best lines in the movie and is generally fantastic as Waltz tends to be. “Downsizing” becomes the story of Ngoc though, and her dedication to making her world as painless as it can be. Ngoc is largely consumed with her humanitarian activities, but there is more to her than her survival and we see this through the relationship that develops between her and Paul lending Damon's character more complexities than he'd been able to play with prior as well. Paul is so genuine in his intentions which is funny given the film offers a rather cynical view on the human race in general, but despite the character starting out as someone who does things for the sake of making himself feel better Paul comes to learn that who he is will be the same no matter what he changes about his surroundings or his circumstances-that it is he who has to change if he wants the outlook of his life to change and it is with this arc that comes into existence once Ngoc is in the picture that not only makes Paul a more interesting character, but “Downsizing” a more interesting and better movie.
by Philip Price
20. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
The second installment of the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” series follows the continuing adventures of Newt Scamander, but of course this time around there will be much stronger link to the Harry Potter mythology as we know it to be. Once more directed by David Yates from a screenplay by Jo Rowling herself this next chapter in what seems to be shaping up to be a prequel series of sorts is said to chronicle the rise of the evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) who we were introduced to in the first film via Colin Farrell's character and who is said to have met Dumbledore (who will be played by Jude Law in this film) when he moved in with his great-aunt at Godric’s Hollow, where the Potters would later be buried. Dumbledore had moved home in Godric's Hollow to take care of his brother, Aberforth, and sister, Ariana, after their mother died, but it is during this time Dumbledore was said to have fallen in love with Grindelwald. This love supposedly blinded him from realizing the evil within the wizard as Dumbledore had finally met someone as brilliant as he. There is a whole backstory one could dig into and get lost in here, but as a massive ‘Harry Potter’ fan, I can't wait to see where this new franchise takes us. (11/16)
19. Bohemian Rhapsody
Last month, 20th Century Fox has moved quickly to set a new director for the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” following the studio’s firing of Bryan Singer (‘X-Men’). After reports of Singer’s unexpected absences from the set, which required director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel to step in, and rising tensions between Singer and star Rami Malek, Fox let the director go in something of an unprecedented situation-at least, as far as such situations being made public. Still, it seems as if Singer had completed much of the principal photography on the film before the studio brought in Eddie the Eagle director, Dexter Fletcher, to finish the job. The film, which tells of the year's leading up to Queen's legendary appearance at the 1985 Live Aid concert is one that was in development for years with Sacha Baron Cohen in the lead and as much as I'd have loved to have seen that version of these events I'm a sucker for a good music biopic and hope this one is able to rank among the best despite the behind-the-scenes turmoil. (12/25)
18. Untitled Deadpool Sequel
I'm beginning to think that unofficial title is going to be the official title which, in many ways, is the perfect title for a film so meta and so aware of itself and the existence of its super hero tropes that it's a wonder they haven't already declared the title for ‘Deadpool 2’ to be ‘Untitled Deadpool Sequel.’ Anyways, yeah-I'm excited for this thing. I was a big fan of what the first film was able to do both in terms of breaking every barrier it did, being legitimately funny, all the while still conveying a rather standard super hero fable it could poke fun at itself with. While “John Wick” director David Leitch takes the helm from Tim Miller this time and gets a bonkers budget boost in the process we're all here to see Ryan Reynolds wax poetic about vulgar topics while wearing red spandex. The synopsis put out by 20th Century Fox is also terrific and goes a little something like this: After surviving a near fatal knee boarding accident, a disfigured guidance counselor (Wade Wilson) struggles to fulfill his dream of becoming Poughkeepsie's most celebrated French Bulldog breeder while also learning to cope with an open relationship. Searching to regain his passion for life, as well as a new stuffed unicorn, Wade must battle ninjas, tight-assed metal men, and babysit a group stereotypical side characters as he journeys around the world to discover the importance of family, friendship, and creative outlets for his very open-minded sex life. He manages to find a new lust for being a do-gooder, a sparkly Hello Kitty backpack, all while earning the coveted coffee mug title of World's Best 4th Wall Breaking Superhero. (6/1)
17. Holmes and Watson
Keeping things alive on the comedy train Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are reuniting for the first time in a decade this year as they, along with writer/director Etan Cohen, will deliver their humorous take on Arthur Conan Doyle's classic mysteries featuring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. While the partnership of Ferrell and Reilly is what gets this movie on the list I must admit I'm still a little skeptical about how much the film will be able to deliver on its inherently funny premise given the two actors won't be guided by the hand of director Adam McKay (“Step Brothers”). Rather, Cohen is something of a frequent collaborator of Ferrell's who both wrote and directed 2015's disappointing “Get Hard” where Ferrell co-starred alongside Kevin Hart. That said, I'm optimistic Ferrell and Reilly's chemistry can shine through what might be a weaker screenplay that what Ferrell and McKay might have come up with. It also doesn't hurt the film co-stars Ralph Fiennes, Kelly Macdonald, Rebecca Hall, Hugh Laurie and Rob Brydon either. (11/9)
16. Mary Magdalene
Director Garth Davis made his feature film debut in 2016 with the safe, but completely earnest “Lion” - a film that stayed with me much longer and in a much stronger fashion than I expected it to. And so, while I was anxious to see what the filmmaker might do as a follow-up I didn't anticipate him going for something as ambitious as creating a narrative around the life of Mary Magdalene. A revered saint, the embodiment of Christian devotion as defined by repentance, but only ever elusively identified in Scripture Magdalene has thus served as the cloth onto which a succession of fantasies has been projected. Her image has been reinvented time and time again, from prostitute to sibyl to mystic to celibate nun to feminist icon to the matriarch of divinity’s secret dynasty. So many things helped shape the story of the woman who befriended Jesus of Nazareth and I can't wait to see what aspects of this mythic figure Davis decides to tackle. His cast is also aces with Rooney Mara in the titular role, Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter. (3/30)
15. M:I 6 - Mission Impossible
There is little to nothing known about the next ‘Mission: Impossible’ film despite the slew of photos writer/director Christopher McQuarrie released over the course of production. Those stills tell us Henry Cavill is in the film and has a major mustache (I'm sure you've heard), that Michelle Monaghan will indeed return for this sixth installment, and that Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames return to their respective roles as well. IMDB will tell you Alec Baldwin and Sean Harris are also back from the previous installment and that Angela Bassett and Vanessa Kirby have been added to the cast while Jeremy Renner is nowhere to be found. It is interesting that McQuarrie is the first director in the franchise's history to direct more than a single installment, never mind back to back installments, but while I enjoyed ‘Rogue Nation’ well enough I have always clung to the ‘M:I’ franchise for its ever-changing approach to its very defined genre via a new director. While I'm still very much excited to see where the adventures of Ethan Hunt take us next, I would be lying if I said I wasn't a bit fearful this one may begin a path of redundancy. (7/27)
14. Ant-Man and the Wasp
In what will be the third and final Marvel Cinematic Universe film of 2018 “Ant-Man and the Wasp” will premiere just two months after “Avengers: Infinity War,” so it’s pretty obvious the films will have some connections, but just as “Ant-Man” came out in the wake of ‘Age of Ultron’ and bridged the gap between the second and third phases of the MCU I imagine this sequel will do something of the same thing between these major stepping stones that are Infinity War and the second, currently untitled ‘Avengers’ film set for May 2019. In “Ant-Man and the Wasp” Paul Rudd's Scott Lang continues to balance being both a super hero and a father, while Evangeline Lilly's Hope van Dyne and Michael Douglas's Dr. Hank Pym present an urgent new mission that finds the Ant-Man fighting alongside The Wasp to uncover secrets from their past. (7/6)
13. White Boy Rick
Yann Demange (“‘71”) directs from a script by Logan and Noah Miller about teenager Richard Wershe Jr., who became an undercover informant for the FBI during the 1980s and was ultimately arrested for drug-trafficking and sentenced to life in prison. Though the McConaissance has been on something of a downward trend over the last few years (I rather liked both “Free State of Jones” and “Gold”) I am still eager to see the interesting choices Matthew McConaughey is making and “White Boy Rick” looks to be another fascinating character study in a line of solid and surprisingly various characters McConaughey has embodied since his turn towards the more dramatic material. I debated whether to include this or McConaughey's other feature that will seemingly debut this year, a thriller written and directed by Steven Knight titled “Serenity” that co-stars Anne Hathaway, but “White Boy Rick” is definitely the more interesting choice based purely on surface details as I liked '71, but this is an opposite beast for Demange to tackle. As a late summer release, I won't get overly optimistic, but I'm anxious to see what this film could potentially turn out to be. (8/17)
12. Ready Player One
It seems as if Steven Spielberg has been working on an adaptation of Ernest Cline's 2011 novel, Ready Player One, since it was released, but now that work is turning into reward and reality as we're less than three months away from a new Spielberg movie with his last film going wide this weekend. While I've yet to read Cline's novel on which this is based I will be doing so over the next couple of months to get a sense of what to expect from the film. Having no expectations watching the trailer though, I was pleasantly surprised by the central idea the film and story seems to center around. At first, based simply on a plot description that told me that the creator of a massive multiplayer online game called Oasis dies and posthumously releases a video in which he challenges all Oasis users to find an Easter Egg that allows that player access to his fortune I thought it sounded very much like it would be akin to watching a video game play out on screen (which isn't always a bad thing-looking at you, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”), but Spielberg has seemingly focused in on the mystery aspect of the story and the relevant themes of how each individual possesses their own particular version of reality via the ever-popular virtual reality. Spielberg also made heavy use of motion-capture for the film and that has made for what look to be some breathtaking, if not overly CGI-reliant visuals. Tye Sheridan, Hannah John-Kamen, Simon Pegg, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance star. (3/30)
11. Isle of Dogs
As someone who isn't necessarily a fan of the stop-motion aesthetic it is still hard to deny a Wes Anderson movie as whatever medium he chooses to tell his stories in they can't seem but to help to be delightful. And while this is technically an animated film, the story is so seemingly off-kilter and unique that it wouldn't be one you would inherently assume might benefit from being an animated feature. Using stop-motion for the first time since his twice Oscar-nominated 2009 effort, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson has since made the equally fantastic “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” each of which I've watched more times than I can count with the latter being a required viewing at least once a year. With that, I am anxiously awaiting the latest from Wes Anderson simply because it is the latest from Wes Anderson. Per usual Anderson's latest boasts a cast of long time collaborators and new ones as the story of “Isle of Dogs” follows a young boy who ventures to an island in search of his own dog after an outbreak of dog attacks in a near-future Japan forcing all canines to be banished to live on a garbage-filled island hence, the title, the Isle of Dogs. Once on the island, the young boy comes across a pack of Alphas lead by Edward Norton‘s Rex. Adventures no doubt ensue. (3/23)
10. Solo: A Star Wars Story
If you're in the bag for this one, then you've been in the bag for some time and no matter what went on behind the scenes you were going to see it. I sure was and still am; the directing drama maybe making the project even more enticing. I know a lot of people think the de-mystifying of one of their great, childhood action heroes are a bad idea in the first place, but it was inevitable from the moment Disney purchased Lucasfilm so at this point just be thankful it ended up in the capable hands of filmmakers like Phil Lord and Chris Miller before being passed off to even more capable, if not the more traditional hands, of Ron Howard. It doesn't even stop there for, before he was cast as the young Solo, Alden Ehrenreich was everybody's favorite up and comer after brilliant turns in “Beautiful Creatures” and the Coen Brothers' “Hail, Caesar!” It doesn't stop there either as the film will feature everyone's favorite multi-hyphenate of the moment, Donald Glover, doing and no doubt nailing a Billy Dee Williams impression as well as Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, and Thandie Newton in unspecified supporting roles. Say what you will, but I'll always be interested in a ‘Star Wars’ story and ‘Solo’ is no different. (5/25)
9. A Wrinkle in Time
“Selma” director Ava DuVernay adapts Madeleine L’Engle's much beloved 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time and Disney is selling this thing like it is the second coming of Christ. This is another book to film adaptation where I haven't read the source material, but need to prior to seeing the film as I enjoy gauging the difference and how skilled directors, such as DuVernay, navigate the necessary differences while still conveying the spirit of the text. In “A Wrinkle in Time” we follow Meg Murry (Storm Reid), her brilliant brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on an unexpected journey into alternate dimensions on a mission to bring their father (Chris Pine) home. Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon have been heavily emphasized in the marketing for the film as the three chimerical celestial beings who help Meg “wrinkle” time and space. This is simply one of those films where Disney knows how to get the hype train going early and remind us often of what is coming, and I've completely bought into it despite knowing little to nothing about L’Engle's original work. All of that said, this looks breathtaking in a visual sense and I always love a big, bold, and original fantasy film meaning Disney didn't really have to do much to convince me to get in line and purchase a ticket. (3/9)
Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Jon Bernthal, Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon, André Holland, Jacki Weaver, Viola Davis, and Liam Neeson make-up what might be the best and biggest cast of the year in Steve McQueen's follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2013 film, “12 Years a Slave,” in “Widows.” The film, which is based upon the 1983 ITV series of the same name, was written by McQueen and “Gone Girl” scribe Gillian Flynn. If that isn't enough to get you in the door know that this isn't another heavy drama by way of McQueen's previous features, but is more a crime/thriller about four armed robbers are killed in a failed heist attempt, only to have their widows step up to finish the job. (11/16)
7. Captive State
Say what you will about Matt Reeves and his two sequels in the latest ‘Planet of the Apes’ trilogy, but my favorite of the bunch is still Rupert Wyatt's initial film. So much better than it had any right to be, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” came on the heels of Wyatt's little seen, but insanely entertaining 2008 film, “The Escapist.” Hell, I even thought “The Gambler” was a solid genre exercise even if there wasn't necessarily a need for it to exist and Wyatt came up with nothing in the way of that purpose, but instead simply executed the beats in a fine fashion. This year though, the director is back with his first original effort since that 2008 prison break actioner in “Captive State” Written with Project Greenlight alum Erica Beeney the film stars John Goodman, Ashton Sanders, Jonathan Majors, Colson Baker, Vera Farmiga, and is set nearly a decade after occupation by an extraterrestrial force, where it explores the lives on both sides of the conflict: the collaborators and dissidents. (8/17)
I was not a fan of “Justice League,” but I am still very much a fan of the DC stable of characters and if “Wonder Woman” proved anything last summer (and don't get it twisted, WW proved a lot) it was that these characters stand to be as endearing and epic as they've been purported to be for years in the comic books under the right guidance. “Justice League” was an amalgam of visions, with his first solo outing, “Aquaman” will come courtesy of Jason Mamoa's unique take on the character and James Wan's (“Furious 7”) singular vision. The film, written by Will Beall (“Gangster Squad”) follows Arthur Curry as he learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and to be a hero to the world. (12/21)
5. First Man
Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) and Ryan Gosling reunite after their previous collaboration won all the awards to tell the story of the life of astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. The film is based on a book by James R. Hansen, a Professor of History at Auburn University and the author of eight books on the history of aerospace including a study of the Apollo program's lunar landing method. So yeah, the guy has the credentials and certainly offers a perspective not like the structure film is accustomed to. Screenwriter Josh Singer (“The Post”) has adapted Hansen's work while the film has also enlisted the likes of Claire Foy, Jon Bernthal, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll along with countless other recognizable character actors to fill out the remainder of the cast. While “First Man” makes the list based on the fact it's Chazelle's next feature alone I look forward to seeing what the writer/director does with a story not set in the world of music and if he can somehow infuse this narrative with as much life and vitality as he did his first two films. (10/12)
4. Black Panther
This is obviously a pretty big deal as it is one of the few African-American led comic book movies and the first for Marvel Studios despite having included characters like Falcon in other films. In the wake of “Wonder Woman” last summer “Black Panther” continues to show the diversification of what the former status quo believed itself to be. It's frankly wonderful to see such big shifts taking place and being executed by major studios as it relays bigger cultural and social impacts than some might even realize, but all this good is made even better when the film itself tends to seem promising. Of course, there was no reason to ever think “Black Panther” was risky given Marvel enlisted director Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) to helm the project. This paired with the fact we already got our first look at Chadwick Boseman's titular character in 2016's “Captain America: Civil War” which in and of itself was fantastic. Take all of this and add to the ever-growing promise of the film that Coogler also rounded-up frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan to play the film's antagonist, Erik Killmonger, and you have what is a guaranteed quality picture if not a guaranteed box office smash due to the fact it is another in a long line of Marvel behemoths. (2/16)
3. A Star is Born
If you looked at my top 10 of 2017 article, then you'll know I'm a big Lady Gaga fan and, so it goes without saying that I'm excited to see her big screen debut in a feature especially when that film is the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name. “A Star is Born” was remade in 1954 starring Judy Garland and James Mason and then in 1976 starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. This latest incarnation of the story that deals in a movie star helping a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral will not only be Gaga's feature debut in a starring role though, but it will also serve as Cooper's directorial debut. The screenplay has been reformatted for what I'm presuming is modern day by more than a handful of screenwriters, the latest of which includes Cooper himself and veteran Nicholas Sparks adapter Will Fetters (“The Lucky One”), but fear not as there have also been drafts done by the likes of Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) and Christopher Wilkinson (“Ali”) that lend an optimistic hope to what was certainly a daunting project to make as a directorial debut. Still, if Cooper's brand of passion and commitment bleeds into this as it typically does his performance work I can only imagine the heights this one might reach. (10/5)
2. The House with a Clock in its Walls
I'm as surprised as you are that I have an Eli Roth-directed picture in my number two spot for my most anticipated of the year, but hey, it's 2018 and this is where we're at. If you're thinking this might be about Roth's re-make of “Death Wish” you are both wrong and did not read the title at the beginning of this paragraph. No, this is about Roth's adaptation of writer John Bellairs and illustrator Edward Gorey's 1973 novel of the same name about a young orphan named Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) who aids his magical uncle in locating a clock with the power to bring about the end of the world. Though not familiar with the source material, the fact this thing is labeled as a horror/fantasy/mystery and stars Cate Blanchett, Kyle McLachlan and Jack Black had me in the bag from the word go. It is also to Roth's credit that he has a knack for tone and that what we saw in both “Cabin Fever” and 2015's “Knock Knock” might translate well to this gothic horror flick whose material was originally aimed at children. Whether Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke are taking things to the extreme or keeping the content closer to kid-friendly remains to be seen, but either way it can't help but feel as if there is something special at play here and I can't wait to see it unfold on the big screen. (9/21)
1. Avengers: Infinity War
In what will be 10 years to the weekend when “Iron Man” first arrived in theaters in May of 2008 we will see the (first part of the) culmination of the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's hard to believe we've been living in this world for a decade now when, looking back, those beginnings were so humble. I clearly remember sitting in the theater not knowing what to expect from “Iron Man,” but mainly being excited that a new ‘The Dark Knight’ trailer was playing before it. Bringing together all of Marvel's heroes has always been ambitious, but as the MCU-train has rolled on and the roster only continued to expand it has become more and more curious as to how Kevin Feige and the Russo brothers might bring this all together in a cohesive manner. The first trailer for the film that premiered late in November made more hairs on my arm stand up than do in that shot of Peter Parker experiencing his Spider sense. Spider-Man's suit looks amazing, Black Panther's line regarding Captain America is fantastic, and that music...that music is really paying off for Marvel. Good for you, Alan Silvestri. The visual scope also looks to fit the number of characters which has been something of a shortcoming for Marvel in the past with many of their films feeling great, but looking flat. The location shots among the sprawling green planes of Wakanda lend a sense of true epicness and that final tag, that final tag is just perfect. I seriously can't wait, and 10 years of building deserves to be celebrated. Hopefully the film is worth celebrating. (5/4)
by Julian Spivey
Much has been made in the news lately about how Mark Wahlberg made over 1,000 times more money for reshoots of the Ridley Scott film “All the Money in the World” than his co-star Michelle Williams when reshoots were made necessary by Christopher Plummer being hired to replace Kevin Spacey after sexual harassment allegations against Spacey.
On the surface it seems like a big deal and an incredibly bad and sexist thing for Wahlberg to earn so much more money than his co-star Williams, especially when it’s Williams who’s garnering award nominations for her performance. Wahlberg has even taken some of the hatred from people for making every penny he can make in the process.
This is just another example of people today who like to make mountains out of molehills. The real story here is about contracts and how some actors and their representatives are better at coming to terms on movie deals than others. If one were to go beneath the surface and do a little digging like USA Today did they would realize that Wahlberg’s contract for “All the Money in the World” didn’t require him to film any reshoots necessary. Williams’ contract did. Thus, Williams received a per diem of $80 per day, whereas Wahlberg was able to negotiate a fee for the reshoots, which lasted 10 days.
Wahlberg didn’t have to do reshoots, period. He could’ve turned down Scott, which likely would’ve resulted in one of three things: the film being scrapped, the film being released as is with Spacey included or Scott also having to replace Wahlberg on film in addition to replacing Spacey. Wahlberg did the right thing, in my opinion, opting to reshoot scenes (of which he appeared in more with Plummer and had to film more than Williams). Because of his contract for the film not obligating him to do so he had the right to earn as much as they would pay him. This is where some find Wahlberg to be greedy for asking for $1.5 million for 10 days work, while his co-star was only making $80 a day (a figure that Wahlberg likely didn’t realize). But, the actor, who was 2017’s highest-paid actor according to Forbes, could’ve taken the time to work on other projects (he does have one currently filming) or just vacation in between his rigorous schedule that’s seen him average 3.4 films a year over the last five years.
Knowing what we know about the contract situations between Wahlberg and Williams on the film there shouldn’t be any controversy over the pay for the reshoots. It certainly doesn’t come down to something sexist, but rather business decisions. Maybe Wahlberg’s representatives are taking better care of him than Williams’ are doing for her?
by Philip Price
In my review for the first “Pitch Perfect” five years ago I called it pure formula, but damn entertaining formula at that. Though the shine may have worn off a tad bit during two sequels and inevitable growing pains it is clear the Barden Bellas are still more than happy to kick it with one another and turn in a handful of generally great A cappella performances with virtually no rehearsal time whatsoever. Like how self-aware that sentence was? Then you'll once again love the very self-aware and insanely self-deprecating “Pitch Perfect 3” as it pretends to struggle to get over the hump of what this threequel should be about given all the girls from the original film are now out of school and pursuing actual careers where singing in their college A cappella group is undoubtedly the last thing they planned to and/or should be doing in their free time. People love them though, myself included, so count myself and every other person who found an affinity for this big screen version of “Glee” that became more of a cultural milestone than it was ever supposed to among the faithful that are happy to sit through another Bella adventure. This is all to state up front the perspective this reaction to “Pitch Perfect 3” will be coming from, but what has always been most appealing about these films is what writer Kay Cannon was able to capture in a sense of humor that is so of the moment it will, if nothing else, serve as a hallmark for how judgy, temperamental, and downright assured this particular generation was for a short time when it felt like anything was possible and the world was headed in all kinds of positive directions. ”Pitch Perfect 3” comes at a different time though, a time of less assurance and of more genuine attempts at staying positive both in the lives of the characters and the current national climate surrounding the film's release (as well as all the shade that typically comes along with being the third entry in a franchise many thought never should have been more than a single film) and thus we have what is presumably the final film with what is at least the original incarnation of the Bellas that, while not nearly as sharp or interesting as its predecessors, is very much a movie of its time as well: a safe, somewhat cautious third excursion that doesn't try to re-write the beats of the first two movies as much as it does lampoon them completely. Sometimes “Pitch Perfect 3” feels like a “Pitch Perfect” movie and other times it doesn't, but mostly it's just an enjoyable time at the movies you won't think much about afterwards until you buy it on Blu-ray in three months to complete your collection and remind yourself of just how much carefree fun it really is.
At the onset of “Pitch Perfect 3” we are immediately treated to the reunited Bellas performing Britney Spears's "Toxic" on what looks to be a luxurious yacht for a single-person audience with the performance very visibly lacking the chutzpah of Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy until Amy drops in from above and sprays that limited audience with a fire extinguisher allowing the Bellas to presumably run for their lives and leap from the yacht. We are given no context for these events before being taken back to some weeks prior where we will now be caught up with the individual members of the Bellas and what they've been doing since the end of the second film to Tarantino it and take us back around to the "Toxic" yacht performance. First up is naturally Anna Kendrick's Beca who has seemingly achieved her dreams of becoming a producer at a major record label except for the fact she has to work with artists like Pimp-Lo (Moises Arias) who don't appreciate her work or understand her craft. In the heat of the moment, Beca quits her job and returns to her small, New York-based apartment that she shares with Fat Amy where the two of them quickly exchange some exposition about why neither Skylar Astin's Jesse or Adam Devine's Bumper are no longer a part of their lives that, as you may have guessed, is totally disappointing. Even worse is the exclusion of Ben Platt's lovable Benji who they set-up as something of a love interest for Hailee Steinfeld's Emily in the second film, but Emily has seemingly moved on as well as she now ushers the new class of Bellas into warming up their vocal nodules and winning competitions. And so, Beca is now unemployed and Fat Amy has been making rent by becoming a street performer (i.e. Fat Amy Winehouse) while Brittany Snow's Chloe is still attempting to fulfill the prerequisites she needs to get into veterinary school. It is when Chloe shows up at Beca and Amy's apartment to remind them of their mini-reunion with the Bellas that Emily invited them to that we get to see what the rest of the gang has been up to while realizing what they were invited to wasn't really a reunion at all, but more of an invite to come and watch the new Bellas strut their stuff-which is of course completely depressing for the original Bellas who aren't exactly killing it in the real world. Anna Camp's Aubrey is as high-strung as ever still running her boot camp, Ester Dean's Cynthia Rose is failing flight school, Hana Mae Lee's Lilly still doesn't speak and thus no one has an idea what she does in her free time, Chrissie Fit's Flo is working at a juice stand, and Kelley Jakle's Jessica and Shelley Regner's Ashley are again just happy to be along for the ride. Alexis Knapp's Stacie more or less sits this round out as she's pregnant and can't travel with the Bellas, but these deterrents don't dampen the idea of one final ride for the original Bellas as Aubrey's father and his connections get the A cappella group on an overseas USO tour where they have to compete with bands who use both their instruments and their voices for an opening spot on DJ Khaled's (playing himself) upcoming tour.
Crazily, that summary doesn't even seem to cover half of what happens in “Pitch Perfect 3.” I mean, I didn't even find time to mention the fact Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are still hanging out providing commentary for whatever the Bellas decide to do next as well as making a documentary about the girls which signals they really shouldn't and don't need to be included in this movie, but hey-what are you going to do when Banks and Higgins are game? This idea that Cannon and her co-writer this time around, Mike White, feel the need to wedge certain things in from previous films is likely the biggest issue with the film. Sure, it is commendable that both writers desired to stray from the formula with which the first two movies followed and this works out for the most part as they throw in actual arcs for a few of the characters that end up forcing the film into all kinds of random directions. Namely, Wilson's Fat Amy who comes to be the cause of all the shenanigans happening in that opening sequence as her father (John Lithgow) makes his face, intentions, and accent very well-known. This sends “Pitch Perfect 3” in the most unexpected direction as I never imagined we'd have an A cappella movie that also included tightly choreographed action sequences, but Wilson proves her worth with more than just the laughs here as she highlights a sequence where Fat Amy disarms a handful of her father's bodyguards to save her teammates. This may sound like it could be a potentially disastrous direction for those who enjoyed the first two films largely due to the musical aspect, but rest assured there is plenty of music to go-around this time as well. It begins by playing upon the fact that any time the Bellas get together it requires an obligatory competition to make the endeavor worth their while, but while it seems that at first the USO tour is simply a conduit for the Bellas to once again stretch their vocal muscles the movie makes fun of itself once again by morphing the opportunity into that of the competition dealing in DJ Khaled's affairs. This new layer of the tour adds a resentment towards the group who only make music with their mouths from those who have worked hard to earn their spot at the table and aren't just there because daddy has a connection. The Bellas adversaries this time around largely consist of an all-female rock band that call themselves Evermoist (yes, you heard that right and you can bet your ass Wilson gets a great joke out of it). Evermoist, consisting of Ruby Rose along with Andy Allo, Venzella Joy, and Hannah Fairlight are only one of the musical acts sharing the tour though, as Trinidad James and D.J. Looney star as a rap duo and a country/rock outfit called Saddle Up also look to unseat the Bellas and their chance at true fame, but no one other than Evermoist ever stand to be a real threat as Rose's Calamity is as fleshed out as these antagonist's get (which isn't much).
Rather, “Pitch Perfect 3” tends to remain focused on its core group of Bellas more than anything else and making sure it sends each of the flagship members off in ways that fans can rest assured that each of them find a certain kind of peace in their space. Snow's Chloe gets something of a love interest in Chicago (Matt Lanter looking like Nick Lachey) as Camp's Aubrey largely deals in her daddy issues. This parallels Fat Amy's struggle with her own, selectively present father who carves out the biggest subplot of the feature. A moment does need to be taken to recognize just how much fun Lithgow is having with his role here. The veteran actor gets to put on a terrible Aussie accent that is so outlandish it can't be serious while, on top of that, frequently serenading Wilson's character with Chicago's "Hard to Say I'm Sorry". If that doesn't entice you I'm not sure what would. Of course, the biggest emphasis here is on Kendrick's Beca though, and her eventual rise to not only become the producer and songwriter she was always meant to be, but also the star she didn't know she could be. While any number of fans will be upset the Beca/Jesse dynamic no longer exists they will be happy to know that Beca is able to earn her spot among the elite she has been attempting to crack into since the first film when she wanted to circumvent college for such an experience. This is a full circle, loop back to the Beca we saw in the first film and to see her not only becoming who she always thought she'd become, but excelling at being in control of her own career is cool. That said, the movie does try to push a new love interest on the character in the form of Khaled's assistant coordinator, Theo (Guy Burnet looking like Adam Scott and Jim Sturgess had a baby), but Beca doesn't seem to want to deal with any part of that noise. Still, this playfulness that Beca exudes in her denials is reminiscent of what was seen between she and Jesse in the first film so all this kind of feels like a re-tread of familiar territory when, if they weren't going to bring back the original male cast, then they should have left such arcs well enough alone. Not that I'm mad Beca and Jesse didn't end up together or anything. All of that taken into consideration, “Step Up All In” director, Trish Sie, takes over for Banks this time around and can confect a concoction that delivers everything you'd expect from a “Pitch Perfect” flick and maybe even a little more in certain spots just to prove to the doubtful audience member they don't have this thing completely figured out yet. “Pitch Perfect 3” is essentially everything it is advertised as being though, and in that regard, it is a perfectly acceptable final piece of this A cappella puzzle. A weightless, but entertaining swan-song for a series that was never meant to be.
by Philip Price
There are opening scenes and then there is the opening scene to “Hostiles.” Why do people treat one another the way we have for all of history? This is the question the opening sequence within director Scott Cooper's (“Crazy Heart”) latest brutally forces us to ponder. The United States, since its inception in 1776, has only not been in conflict with itself or another country for a total of 18 years. Why are we like this? What is it in our human nature that allows us to always be at odds with others and their inclinations? It's a fascinating and broad mentality to deconstruct, but dammit if Cooper doesn't try his darndest in what is itself a seeming deconstruction of the classic American Western. Maybe it's the fact I haven't seen as many classic Westerns as I should to be able to understand where “Hostiles” goes wrong in its breaking down of the mythos of the old west, but for what it's worth, Cooper's film feels pure in its intent to accurately portray this time and the dynamics that existed in as honest a fashion as possible-no matter how gruesome and no matter who comes out looking worse. This opening sequence then, which I won't go into detail about here, is an immediate and gut-wrenching reminder of the fact hate is often one in the same no matter where it comes from, but is often not seen as hate from the perspective from which it comes. In “Hostiles,” Cooper examines all the complexities of war and the purpose of the meanings behind words like honor and courage while stripping them down to not so much the definitions we've come to immediately relate to such words, but more the intent behind them. It's a rather simple suggestion, a simple consensus to come to even, but as history has shown us there is typically a lot of bloodshed and a lot of lives lost in the process of trying to come to such a consensus. And so, Cooper communicates these simple, but resounding themes through a straightforward story that is executed with the scope of that grand American Western. Channeling this idea that somewhere along the lines of history we found war to be the most effective tool of persuasion into a narrative that is able to say much more with the implications of the events it documents rather than serving as an excuse for an adrenaline rush via the shootouts or misplaced pride in whatever side you might genetically fall, but more in being an understanding of the value of life and how much of it has been lost over what comes down to little more than inconsequential details.
Beginning with a D.H. Lawrence quote that states, "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." One might guess what direction this is heading, but one also must wonder with what perspective this statement is coming from as well as Lawrence only lived in the United States from 1922 to 1925 or so and went on many extended vacations during that time. Lawrence was in fact only a young boy, seven-years old to be exact, when the events in “Hostiles” are said to be taking place and so, while Lawrence wasn't specifically talking about the men that we see in this film it is evident he saw something in the nature and in the spirit of those he came in contact with during his time establishing the Kiowa Ranch in Taos, N.M. that inspired him to write such words about the nation. That said, Lawrence also seemed to despise the lower classes and felt the need to rid society of them, so take all of this with a grain of salt if you'd like. The point being, Lawrence's quote is meant to enlist a state of mind about the embodiment of these characters we're about to go on a journey with. It is meant to create an aura around other characters so that, upon being introduced to them, we already have a good sense of what occupies their head space. Set in New Mexico in 1892, thirty years post-Civil War, Cooper picks up with Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), regarded for "taking more scalps than Sitting Bull himself," who is enlisted as a kind of "last act to ensure retirement" to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief and his family who have been prisoners of the U.S. for over seven years back to their tribal lands. Telling is the fact that immediately following the opening sequence Cooper cuts to Blocker and his men torturing an Apache as his wife and young child stand idle by, unable to do anything but scream in terror. It's not nearly as devastating as what unfolds in the first five minutes of the film, but as this Native American is pulled along the ground by a horse over rough terrain for no reason other than to treat this fellow man with disregard, it is clear the position the film is taking and the lack of juxtaposition between what are meant to be soldiers who uphold the law and basic civility and that of Comanche renegades is intentionally striking. The fact Bale's Blocker is at the head of this wrangling also tells us the initial disposition of his character which, when paired with the image conjured by the Lawrence quote, doesn't exactly paint a picture of an individual who would find no qualms in protecting what he has clearly come to despise. Of course, if Blocker wasn't initially prejudice against the Native Americans there would be no arc for his character and no satisfaction in the narrative and thus we are on this journey not only to ensure that Blocker completes his task successfully, but that he naturally learns something in the process as well.
Blocker puts together his detail in Rory Cochrane's Master Sgt. Thomas Metz, a soldier who is at the end of his line; exhausted and conflicted. Having seen so much and no doubt done much worse, the violence has taken an untold toll on the Master Sgt. as he can't help but to be unable to reconcile all he's been commanded to do in his life. Jonathan Majors is Corp. Henry Woodsen, the only African-American in Blocker's detail though this fact isn't highlighted or exploited for any cheap shots. Rather, Woodsen maintains the respect he deserves by exemplifying his skill throughout. It is one of the best scenes in the film when Bale and Woodsen, in a moment of vulnerability, allow each of their facades to fall and their sincere gratitude to come through. Jesse Plemons is West Point graduate Lt. Rudy Kidder who oversees provisions and, given they don't get too many "West Point types" out this far, is also out to prove his worth. Finally, there is Timothée Chalamet's Pvt. Philippe DeJardin who is a new arrival with less than ideal experience that wasn't chosen by Blocker specifically, but rather Stephen Lang's Col. Abraham Biggs who has tasked Blocked with this undesirable duty. This was obviously shot during Chalamet working on his two other breakout films this year as “Hostiles” takes very little advantage of the young actor's charisma, though the remainder of the supporting cast being so steeped in talent lend this dark yet sturdy picture a resonance it can't help but to generate. Bale is particularly affecting despite it being made clear early that his character is something of an asshole. Shortly after leaving the site in New Mexico to escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Black Hawk's wife Elk Woman (Q'orianka Kilcher), and their son Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief), as well as the Chief's daughter, Moon Deer (Tanaya Beatty), to sacred Cheyenne territory in Montana known as "The Valley of the Bears" the company comes across a residence that has been burned to the ground with only Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) remaining. It is in the moments shortly after the first encounter between Blocker and Quaid that Bale demonstrates his character's unexpected sympathy and ability to deftly handle the delicate situation in which he has encountered. Bale conveying much of what was on the page in mannerisms and glances that speak volumes to this hardened Captain's softer interiors. Pike is equal in her performance throughout as she commands we stay with her in every moment no matter how hard we might want to look away. No matter the context or surrounding circumstances, what we witness Pike's character and no doubt countless Native American wives and mothers, who had to deal with the same type of heartbreak, go through is unacceptable only reinforcing the larger theme imbued by Cooper and purposefully begging the question, over and over, of why must we treat others the way we do and have for so long?
In framing these events the way Cooper does we are understanding to the way in which Bale and his company of men react to even the sight of Native Americans, no matter the tribe. With the key understanding that not all tribes were "rattlesnake people" such as the Comanche's are portrayed to be, we also understand how large a role provocation played in the way in which many of these Native American tribes were forced to react to the white settlers. “Hostiles” is a constant back and forth of differing views that seeks to find the smallest patch of common ground even if it doesn't realize that's what it's longing for. “Hostiles” is a violent movie, one draped in the blood of all that dare venture onto its wide plane, but as Cooper attempts to slyly suggest a plea for change among an onslaught of actions that only seem detrimental to humans a more well-rounded picture of why this plea feels so authentic comes into view. Cooper loves the soul of this period, these never-ending frontiers, the grit in each man's teeth, each particle of dust on each man's hat and he is sure to capture this scale and soulfulness in the open locations as rendered by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. The serenity of such wide landscapes and stark color differences directly conflicting with the rage inside so many of the characters. Further, Cooper then uses these familiar images and the well-worn traditions of the genre to steep the audience in what we believe we're getting ourselves into while dealing with the truth of these times in a way the pictures of the ‘50s and ‘60s weren't willing to admit. It is Cochrane's character and that of a smaller supporting turn by Ben Foster (always the reliable scumbag) that emphasizes the line each man walks between being the best version of himself and his own worst enemy. "We're all guilty of something," Foster's character says at one point, "I'm just asking for mercy." This comes just prior to Foster's prisoner asking Bale's Blocker who he's become. It's a moment that makes one sit up, makes one contemplate all sides of the argument, and forces one to evaluate the ideas of change, of absolutes, and of what can be done to correct moving forward rather than stay stagnate in this hell-like cycle that pushes men to the point they are unable to feel anything, much less the capability to come to terms with they've done and, in the end, moreover why they've done it. Blocker understanding his job has essentially become that of taking the life of another man. All of this would seem to indeed embody those words written by Lawrence so long ago, yet just as he is doing with the Western genre, Cooper deconstructs the myth of the American soul-not necessarily disagreeing with what has been said, but adding layers to it. This unabashed truth might make “Hostiles” hard to swallow for some, and it drags intermittently as it seems it was always destined to do, but with as strong an ensemble as on display and Cooper's sensibilities applying themselves intrinsically to this world “Hostiles” is ultimately as strong and gut-wrenching a film as that opening scene would indicate it to be.
by Philip Price
“The Post” is as much a movie as it is a strict documentation of a sequence of events that deal in something as fleeting as time and the importance man places upon the construct of time. Time, by all definitions, is a mental construct used to make sense of movement. There is a great sense of the collusion between time and movement in the latest from director Steven Spielberg and how what man has created to help maintain order can also spin us into the very midst of confusion as chaos is so often categorized. Simply by defining how long something has the potential to be powerful or life-changing we set ourselves up for large successes or failures. It is no surprise then that Spielberg focuses not on the passage of time or how this fleeting thing called life is formed against the backdrop of the time we just so happen to have been born into or exist within, but rather how time is what we do with it. What defines our lives and the time we can spend on this earth is not simply how we make it through one day to get to the next, but by the actions we take, the strides we make, and the deadlines we set for ourselves and either meet or don't. It's a thesis based on the hope that nobility is a prized possession in any viewer that sits down to take in history as told by the movies. This thesis of sorts is meant to both stir something deep within for the pride in one's country that allows for, "the press to serve the governed, not the governors," while at the same time utilizing this message to remind us all that history undoubtedly repeats itself. One would be remiss to go through a full discussion around “The Post” without mentioning its relevancy, but more so-its poignancy-in relation to the present state of the world and the leaders that are in power; utilizing their power for personal gain and favorable poll numbers rather than in the interest of world peace. Our present day is not the world the characters in “The Post” thought they were shaping or being bold enough to attempt to usher society into and while Spielberg makes no direct indication of his intent the opportunistic quality of the project is enough to suggest as much. It would be futile to not mention such obvious parallels and why this film feels more like a product of today despite taking place 46 years ago. This isn't a negative in terms of how it plays throughout the narrative either, but is more a return to this idea of time, time as a construct, and how it isn't a neat and tidy sequence of events one can always apply a narrative to, but something that is forever reminding us, humans, what we must do and what values we must continue to uphold to ensure our continued survival. “The Post” may not exactly be a revelatory piece of work, but it is certainly a direct and not so gentle reminder there has to be examples of the best of us in the worst of times.
Beginning in Vietnam in 1966 we are introduced to Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an observer from the American Embassy who is taking notes on the progress and effectiveness or lack thereof of the United States military being present in Vietnam. An encounter with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) makes it obvious to Ellsberg that no matter the truth of the situation or even the belief in that truth behind the scenes, there is nothing more important than saving face and keeping the peace in Washington, leading Ellsberg to steal sensitive government documents that were meant to be historical surveys of America's involvement in the Vietnam war and share the truth with the world. Jumping to Washington DC, in 1971, we are then introduced to Meryl Streep's Kay Graham, the woman who inherited The Washington Post from her husband after his suicide when she was 45, who had in fact inherited the paper from Graham's father prior to his passing. Graham has now found herself in a position she never thought she'd be in where she is not only having to manage the output of the paper and her pit-bull of an editor in Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), but also the negotiations with bankers to take the newspaper public to make the company solvent, to stay in business, and to be allowed to continue to grow. It is in this kind of dual responsibility that screenwriters Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) and Liz Hannah (“Hitchcock/Truffaut”) track the narrative as the film follows the developing situation of each as they both come to play greatly into the significance of the other. While Graham consults with Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) and is nervous given her resolve for turning a profit is in question with the board she is also put in another awkward position when the New York Times runs a story about her good friend McNamara concerning the fact he was aware a classified department of defense study he commissioned was leaked and published, essentially telling the world the government had given up on Vietnam several years before it was over while still sending troops to be slaughtered. While this strand in the storytelling largely deals in Bradlee and his team, including Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), Howard Simons (David Cross), and Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon), chasing down the remaining Pentagon papers dealing in these Vietnam affairs after the U.S. attorney general specifically requests The Times refrain from further publication of these documents. Bradlee is pushing to publish the remainder of these papers so as to take The Post from the smaller operation it was regarded as at the time onto the national stage while also staying true to his conscious and convictions despite many board members, including Bradley Whitford's Arthur Parsons, trying to steer Graham and her paper in a direction she isn't actually interested in.
As much as “The Post” is about this tense period of time in the early seventies just prior to the Watergate scandal it is also a film that works in the necessary angle of being about a woman in a position of power during a time when such female figureheads weren't common and more so, weren't trusted to be able to handle the demands of such high-profile jobs. Late in the film, Streep's Graham is having a discussion with her daughter, Lally (Alison Brie) who would come to serve as a senior editor of “The Post,” where she asks her if she's ever heard the saying, "A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs-it's not done well, and you're surprised to see it's done at all." Graham goes on to tell her daughter, who is clearly disgusted at the thought of such degenerative speech being spewed in her or her mother's direction, this was simply the way they all thought back then. And so, while Spielberg is very clearly hoping to draw some parallels in terms of political climate, he is also interested in making a strong case for the equality of women in the workplace and in all walks of life. There are several sequences in the film where we see Streep's character walking into large, crowded rooms where it is immediately apparent that she is one of the few if not the only woman in the room. Spielberg does this to intentionally build and remind the audience of the overwhelming atmosphere of pressure that women such as Graham and likely to a larger degree for women not in a position of power such as Graham had to deal with on a day to day basis. And though Graham does a fair amount of hosting parties and entertaining guests throughout the film, what is more of note are the scenes in which Streep is asked not to command a room or ease those nervous to be in her company, but those of the scenes where she is tasked with making difficult decisions. This may sound like a specific instance or a scene, but there are more than a few instances where we see the typically well-spoken Streep play Graham as a woman who may in fact be out of her depth, but can't allow the public to derive as much-putting up a united front to make bigger strides in the broader scope of the world. These scenes where Streep is given little dialogue and is on the phone with multiple people, but where Spielberg chooses to keep his camera on her for most of the sequence are telling in the way Streep's face conveys everything we need to know about the countless thoughts rushing through her mind and the trepidations she must have felt being asked to risk all that she'd recently inherited for nothing more than what she believed was right. While not featured heavily, the great Sarah Paulson has a scene as the wife of Hanks' Bradlee, Tony, where she presents a moment that lends the film and Bradlee a different perspective than he might have considered prior. A perspective Spielberg is keen on making an integral part of the narrative in “The Post.”
That said, there are also plenty of other themes, ideas, gestures, and/or thoughts that Spielberg's latest wants to contemplate and consider whether it be in having an administration dictating news coverage just because they don't like what these publications have to say, how these said publications need to be the check for those who don't believe they should be held accountable for their actions, or the fact that the President of the United States genuinely believes that if he can't keep secrets, he can't govern properly. Sure, this might be true to a degree and I'm not one to live in a fantasy world of absolutes, but in the instance of “The Post” Spielberg and the screenwriters make the case the governing body at the time knew the U.S. couldn't win the war and yet they still sent boys to die and did this largely to avoid the humiliation of an American defeat. To this degree, Spielberg does make attempts at showing both sides of the story as he portrays those who leak the documents as well as the ensemble of journalists as people with both strong consciousness and convictions, but also a fair amount of ego that is not to be cast aside. Such themes go back to that idea of the film's thesis being based on the hope that nobility is a prized possession in the viewers as Graham reiterates time and time again that her newspaper is dedicated to the welfare of the nation and to the principles of a free press; admiring the saying her father used to speak that taught her, "the news is the first draft of history." These ideas are implemented cleanly and successfully by both Spielberg in his capturing of the necessary emotions and by the screenwriters who have somehow managed to turn this, what was no doubt a sprawling epic of personal accounts, an abundance of small details, and more characters than one could ever give their due diligence to, into a streamlined, efficient, and never tedious film that is effective in its objective while still coming in under two hours.
The film just continues to move; never slowing down and never stopping to make sure the audience is keeping up. Rather, Hanks and Streep deliver performances we've come to expect (and now probably take for granted) from the powerhouses that they are whereas the supporting cast stands out mostly in scenes where Odenkirk is sent on a mission to recover the papers that might allow Graham's "little local paper" to break the big story wide open. Brie also holds her own in scenes with Streep as the two communicate a genuine, but unique mother/daughter relationship that is never given the necessary time to be established or developed, but the two actresses are still able to help us understand the dynamic with ease after the first conversation they share on screen. The likes of Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods also show up as lawyers on the payroll of “The Post” to help guide the staff in their efforts to publish a story around these leaked documents that inadvertently causes a fair amount of tension. While not all are given much to do, Whitford's Parsons is especially one-note, the cast all bring a sense of gravitas to the project. That said, “The Post” is a film that is informative if not necessarily as moving as you might expect. An exercise in expert filmmaking by a director who has so honed his craft by this point it would seem Spielberg could make something such as “The Post” in his sleep. And maybe he could, maybe “The Post” isn’t something that is necessarily great, but this isn't because it's not breaking any boundaries, but more because it stands to say so much and does so in as efficient a manner as one can imagine without becoming complicated, beleaguered, or overlong. This seems to give some pause to the fact something as layered and complex could come across so easy. Something like “The Post” shouldn’t feel as if it were easy to pull off and yet, that is the impression Spielberg’s film gives by the time we reach the films multiple endings that see it concluding with a tease that would suggest a historical universe of movies a la Marvel were coming down the pipeline. I kid, but I wouldn't mind. Inevitably, “The Post” is a brisk, but weighted slice of cinematic heaven. There is a sequence late in the film that chronicles the assembly of the next morning's edition that is truly fascinating in that it shows how much things have changed as well as how much work was required to make a deadline in those heydays of print. Much like the paper itself, on the surface “The Post” seems a well-oiled machine of determination and ink that Spielberg guides to effectively stirring results while only hinting at the numerous and equally interesting stories that might lie within the story we've just seen (or read).
by Philip Price
It's 2003 and the memory of 9/11 is still fresh in the minds of most people. It's a time when men of a certain age found the noble thing to do to be to stand up and volunteer to fight for their country, to hunt down the Taliban, and rid the world of this evil that dared to disrupt the previous decade of peace America had experienced with the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. This marked the first opportunity for those that were just old enough to remember hints of the conflict in the Gulf War that presented a cause of their own to fight for. One of those who decided to take it upon themselves to do so was Larry 'Doc' Shepherd's son, Larry Jr., a Marine who we learn at the onset of the latest film from director Richard Linklater has been killed in action. It is in this tragedy and the context of these events that Linklater and co-writer Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote the book this film is based on (and is something of a spiritual sequel to his 1970 novel, The Last Detail, which was also turned into a movie starring Jack Nicholson), come to examine the toll taken, the treatment versus the empty appreciation, and if the ultimate sacrifice would have been an easier route to take than the price most veterans pay for the rest of their lives. “Last Flag Flying” was initially published in 2004 and so it is very much a product of this great national tragedy itself where there was this immediate unification and call to action that lasted until many soldiers seemed to realize that such action wasn't all it was cracked up to be. That said, Linklater doesn't seem to be interested in making a political film, but rather one about the personalities of his three subjects and the necessary appreciation of their perspectives. It just so happens the military and the military lifestyle play a major role in who each of these men were and still are due to the fact this all-powerful entity is still dictating the way in which their lives and the lives of their loved ones do or do not play out. Like many Linklater films, there is more to “Last Flag Flying” than initially meets the eye as, on the surface, this largely looks to be a road trip movie that documents the rekindling of friendships with the power to work as a healing process for a single party’s recent tragedy, but while the film serves this obvious purpose it also means to be a meditation on identity as well as who and/or how we allow that identity to be defined after we're gone.
The line that “Last Flag Flying” walks so well is that of dispelling the mind that believes there are one of two ways to be. In the case of this film specifically, it's this line of thought that if you are against the war you are unpatriotic. For such complex and layered conflicts to be broken down into such a simpleminded idea makes sense given man's nature to ignore the complicated in favor of the clean and simple (I'm guilty of this as much as the next guy), but when it comes to subjects and circumstances that deal in actual lives of individuals or actions that put the lives of individuals at risk we can't afford to be clean, we have to look at every angle, consider every perspective, and evaluate every possible outcome in order to make a well-informed and sound decision on a topic and war certainly seems to be one that should be addressed as such, but is often reduced to the bad guys needing to be stopped and America being the good guys who are going to go in at all costs and stop them. Within the context of “Last Flag Flying” this point is made best through the audience getting to know Bryan Cranston's character, Sal Nealon, who is the only member of this trio we follow-up with that never settled down, that never found a way to feel like he belonged to society after returning from the war, and who ultimately only felt he'd found his place when he was in the core. To a certain extent it is a given then that Sal believes in the strength of the military and believes in the code and culture he abided by in his formative years unable to give into the thought that this thing he was a part of and this thing that lent him, so much purpose could turn out to be a complete falsity or little more than a machine for the powerful to recruit the lost and willing to fight their wars for them. Still, it is evident throughout the course of the actions Sal takes in “Last Flag Flying” that Sal is just as hesitant to embrace anything or anyone having to deal with the present representation of the military as he is to stand up for it. Moments when Sal must step in for the broken Doc (Steve Carell) where domineering Colonel's insist that Doc's son be laid to rest in Arlington in his blue's rather than in a way that Doc sees fit given his current state of resentment for the government. In one of the more powerful lines in the film Doc states that, "I'm not going to bury a marine. I'm just going to bury my son." and while Sal likely would choose to be buried in his uniform and with full military honors when he passes he understands and is sympathetic to where Doc is coming from. In short, Sal and Cranston's performance as Sal (while a bit too Cranston-y at times) is what allows both the films ideas and the film itself to walk this line between the sullen and the uplifting.
Sal being the only one of the group eager to re-live the past and test the limits of both Doc and Laurence Fishburne's Mueller is also what drives the plot to be consistently engaging rather than what it might have been without the character-a road trip with a grieving parent who retreats back into himself and his stoic demeanor and a man of the cloth who is hesitant to even go along on this trip for fear of slipping back into the habits of his younger years. Therefore, there is never a scene without Sal and why, whenever the trio is broken up we, the viewers, always stay with whatever group Sal is in. That isn't to say the other two performers aren't good or are not entertaining enough to hold the audience's interest, but while the performances are solid all-around it's true one wouldn't want to spend an entire movie with either of the other two guys. To their credit though, both Carell and Fishburne make their characters-if not necessarily barrels of laughs-still intriguing people we become interested in and care about. Carell is the perfect vehicle for empathy. The guy's face and everything about him make him so endearing and he uses that ability here to great advantage. Doc is the youngest of the group and was a young guy who just wanted to hang out with the older, cooler kids in his unit where there is history between the three of them that largely goes unspoken that has to do with actions involving the stealing of morphine, the loss of a comrade they then couldn't medicate because of this addiction, and Doc taking the fall for it all and spending a fair amount of time in a military prison. Doc doesn't bring it up and the whisperings between Sal and Mueller are typically stifled by Mueller while Sal seems to be building himself up to be a big enough man to finally face the consequences of what he once did. As Doc, Carell explores a side of himself we haven't seen on screen before. Granted, there is one scene where our three leads along with their military escort and friend of Larry Jr.'s, Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), recount old war stories where we get a glimpse of the Carell we all know and love, but Doc is largely a guy who doesn't like to talk about how he's feeling and would rather deal with his grief on his own terms, but who is foreword thinking enough to know that to accomplish what we wants with his son, to take his child back from those who took him away he's going to need help and he's going to need help from guys who understand which leads him back to Sal and Mueller and their remorseful hearts. And thus, the road trip movie is born, but of course “Last Flag Flying” becomes more than this as it is a Linklater film and inherently has more on its mind than standard plot devices and obvious old man jokes.
Conflicted about everything because it is trying to always better understand everything, a Richard Linklater film is something that always has something to say if not necessarily a point of view to say it from. This isn't because Linklater himself doesn't have a point of view, of course he does, but more the idea that when putting such perspectives down on celluloid there is a willingness to better understand whatever it is that's on the characters minds to as broad an extent as possible. For instance, “Last Flag Flying” could be about taking a stand against the military and America's frequent inclinations to become involved in conflicts where we don't belong and there would be plenty of material within the film to support as much while there is seemingly the same amount of material that would support “Last Flag Flying” actually being about the unbreakable bond formed between fellow soldiers and brothers no matter the lack of respect they might have for the powers that be that sent them to that God-forsaken jungle. Going back to dispelling the mindset that there is only one of two ways to be these contradicting ideas that the film and its characters sway back and forth between are Linklater's way of attempting to paint as well-rounded and as realistic a picture as possible the same could be said for Fishburne's character as this is a man who has reformed his soul and gone all the way over to the light becoming a loving husband, a father, now a grandfather, and a pastor with his own congregation. Mueller is a man who has come to fear his actions in Vietnam so much that he has essentially done everything he can do to make up for those actions to ensure he gets a ticket into heaven when all is said and done. That isn't to say Mueller's actions aren't genuine-at this point in his life I'm sure they've become so even if they didn't start out as, much-but the film makes a case for Mueller's noble life and this sense of purpose he has found through the respect he has gathered, but that doesn't mean Linklater and Ponicsan aren't going to challenge this acceptable train of thought. No, instead of letting Mueller have his way and keep his serene and simple existence intact Sal shows up to present this opposing view that rather than submit fully to God that he would rather be as real as he can under any set of circumstances and in any given moment (and, in all fairness, lives a little too much in each moment) while believing that, if there is a higher power, they will realize these are the type of people best suited for heaven; not the ones who let it be known time and time again that they go to church every week, but those that lead by example and try to do the best for themselves and for those around them. “Last Flag Flying” handles this difference and the many differences in perspective it addresses so skillfully that we hardly come to notice this supposed road trip movie isn't about three old men trying to re-live their past or re-kindle their youth as we might expect, but rather it is a film about these guys looking toward the future and better defining who they are and how they want their identity to be remembered and live-on.