“The Post”

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks do such a masterful job playing  Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee that we forget that we are watching top-notch actors. Their familar faces meld into the Kay and Ben, the historic figures “The Post” makes them. We are reminded that homage should be paid to those who stand up for democratic ideals, freedom of the press being one of the most important for any truth-seeking citizen.

Graham and Bradlee, publisher and editor, respectively, had to decide in 1971 whether to risk the newspaper and prison to publish classified history. The films  “All The President’s Men” ( 1976 ) and “ Spotlight”  ( 2015 ) have used the same material. “The Post” holds its own in this “fake news” Trump-time.

The Pentagon Papers and the story of the New York Times and The Washington Post in publishing them is recreated under Stephen Spielberg’s expert direction. The pacing, the personal relationships, the networking of sources, and the egos and the character of pure journalism pervade.

Four American Presidents misled the nation by championing the Viet Nam war. Daniel Ellsberg photocopied 4,000 of the 7,000 classified government documents housed at the Rand Corporation which systematically showed that Congress and the public were kept from the truth. As his colleagues recalled, “ he ‘doved’ pretty hard.” I hope the 86 year-old Ellsberg enjoys this film.

For Streep’s pregnant pauses, her yelps, her small gestures like straightening her belt all make Graham so real. She both snores at her desk and  empathizes with the families of dead soldiers. Streep can deliver the punch line softly: “ I’m asking your advise, not your permission.” Likewise,  Hanks adds a toughness and an insight to editor Bradlee that show how competitiveness was part of the journalistic trade. When Kay says, “ Ben sets his mind to plunder” , Hanks is believable as a Viking.  Tracy Letts is memorable as a conservative board member. Daniel Ellsberg, played understatedly by Matthew Rhys; and Bruce Greenwood, playing an almost physical double to Robert McNamara, further perfect the casting.

Boardrooms, newsrooms, closeted offices, restaurants, and private residences keep the settings interesting. The lino-type machines and the hand-tied  bundles of newsprint are nostalgic, ( as are Thom McCann shoe boxes) ,and the presses running are applaud-worthy. Parties where the men and women separate, where the men talk policy and the women discuss Laurence Durrell novels are the norm.

Writers, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer seamlessly incorporate the struggle of women to gain full respect and power. Sarah Paulson as Ben’s wife, Antoinette Bradlee, gives a great performance voicing the bravery of Kay Graham. President Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, tried to halt any chance of publication that proved 30 years of government lying. Henry Kissinger believed “ people need be put to the torch” for security breaches. The fact that Graham’s family paper was going public further complicated the decision to print.

When Hanks intones, “ The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish.” ,we think of Ellsberg willing to go to prison to stop a war. And, we especially, think of Katherine Graham willing to make a decision that could kill her newspaper, and her family’s reputation, and her three daughters’ fortunes.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 vote in favor of freedom of the press, and Judge Black’s words: “ the press serves to the governed, not to the governor” , could not ring any clearer for this  2018 viewer.


“Phantom Thread”

This slow, beautifully filmed period piece packs a sly wallop. My interest never wavered in anticipation of a story. The story is more of a character analysis on one end, and a crafty power marriage dance on the other. Parts are extremely funny.

Set in a  mid-century haute-couture London scene, “Phantom Thread” meanders through seaside hotels, castle-like estates, and the many-floored Victorian art house of Woodcock.

Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock ( Daniel Day-Lewis ) is a demanding dress designer. He is in supreme control of both his craft and his environment. He sews secret talismans within the seams of his creations. He suffers from misophonia.

Textured frames show us Reynold’s own grooming and dining idiosyncrasies, which are more intriguing than boorish. He derides pastries as “ sludggy things”. His asparagus is preferred with salt and oil, his tomato juice and martini with lemon. Amongst the tea, linen, and the roses, he tells his  current muse that his day can not begin with confrontation.  He is in charge. She will soon be tossed aside by the man who calls himself “ a confirmed bachelor”. He adds that she need not pout: “ marriage would make him deceitful”. One of my favorite lines, in this film without many, comes next: “Expectations of others cause heartache, I think.”

Meticulously dressed himself in hand-tied gray neckwear and layers of finery, topped with a long overcoat, Day-Lewis is a 60 year-old fashion plate: a series of these images could cause swoons from fashion aficionados. One particular frame has Daniel Day-Lewis in profile with the sea outside the window. It is arresting in import. His charmed life will come to what, we ask. There is a subtle tension that keeps us interested.

This man has an appetite: Welsh rarebit, bacon, eggs, scones and sausages – all in one sitting. Jam, but not strawberry, and lapsang tea are perfectly served by a smitten and equally  smited waitress. Our real story begins.

An indefatigable waitress, a charming Vicky Krieps, takes copious notes on his order, and he in turn rakishly tells her he will keep her notations. She writes on his bill, “For the hungry boy, my name is Alma.” A few fast car drives, a lesson in custard sauces and a taking of measurements provide Reynolds with another muse, but one that will become his equal.

Woodcock himself dresses countesses and heiresses. His artist’s ego is matched by his elder sister’s.  Cyril , played beautifully by Lesley Manville, begins as a cypher and protectress. She stands up to her brother when he gets too pushy, and she respects and likes Alma when she acts in kind. “No one likes to be dismissed”, she instructs her brother. Manville expertly delivers her most forceful line: “ Don’t pick a fight with me~ you will end up on the floor.”

Gothic elements are here. And I like them, always. The phantom of “Phantom Thread” at first is our protagonist’s mother: a ghostly vision in her second wedding dress. Her son, R. Jeremiah Woodcock ( Daniel Day-Lewis) had fashioned her dress when he was sixteen. She weighs on him still. Their dead mother’s spirit hovers over sister and brother. Reynold dreams of their mother appearing to him, “reaching out to us”. He keeps a lock of her hair sewn in the linings of his garments.

He tells Alma that his mother taught him his trade. Alma wants to be the recipient of this kind of devotion. She plots with my favorite gothic element: the gilled mushroom.

Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson shines his brightest yet with “Phantom Thread”. All is sensual, rather than sexual. ( even the smells). Alma is both innocent and conniving. Reynold puts his mother’s clothes on her, and she whispers: “ Whatever you do, do it carefully.”

The film uses a conversation, almost interview like, with a person we only later find out is the estate doctor. “I have given him every piece of me,” Alma tells the doctor.

Alma, the foreign bride, has now become the phantom thread and supplants mama. Alma is as attuned to detail, as Reynold is. The Woodcock name is upheld, and he is complicit in their dangerous game which keeps his creativity flowing.

All of this visual delight: candle light, almost set tableaux, and especially, the faces of Krieps and Day-Lewis are matched with a glorious score. The music is worth the ticket price. Jonny Greenwood, as music director,  is Oscar worthy.

Daniel Day-Lewis is at his best as he turns all persnickety  over breakfast noise. While admonishing the over abundance of butter, Reynold forgets that Alma “ can stand endlessly”. She plays his bullying  and rudeness with perseverance and strategy. He likes the dead watching over the living, and she likes the living watching over the near dead. Power is balanced.

The wife he now needs, Alma,  saves the business art house and his creative life and he, who is cognoscent of all details, knows this. Their sly smiles toy  with death and lend a sexual chord that kinks this film up a notch. I was mesmerized.

“Lady Bird”

Actress Greta Gerwig’s directional debut in “Lady Bird” has a lot a humanities major would love: John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, August Wilson, and palindromes galore, and even Kierkegaard.  That being said there is also a lot that irritates.

This reviewer is still living in the Midwest and went to Catholic schools. I get Sacramento as the Midwest of California, and I get nuns. But as a rebellion film “Lady Bird” falls short.

Our narrator is Christine, (also my name) but “Lady Bird” is her name of choice. Lady Bird has an endearing habit of correcting adult statements with, “that we know of yet.” Her youth is open to all possibilities, yet she ends up back in her hometown after giving the big city only months.

This is a coming-of-age mother-daughter film, that while winning the Golden Globe for best Comedic Picture and  crediting Saoirse Ronan with Best Comedic Actress,  left me wanting. The repartee is alternately cute and affrontive. When NYC seems too far for her baby to go, mom Marion says   “What about terrorism ?”  LB eye rolls with an imperative: “Don’t be a Republican.” It is well-timed and funny, and merrily we roll along for ninety-three minutes.

We have the eating of unconsecrated wafers on the sacristy floor, and the derisive nomenclature akin to Trump’s “Rocket Boy”. Here it takes a Catholic twist bending in with a sacrilegious “Immaculate Fart”. Adolescent, yes. Rebellious, really?

A devoted, but jobless father( Tracy Letts), an over-worked and brittle mother ( Laurie Medcalf) , a  gay boy friend, and lust for the in-crowd’s acceptance all come into play as we would expect. Reading Zinn’s  “ The People’s History” during Mass, a creative touch. But rebellious?

We feel for Jules, LB’s “ghosted” friend, and for the Thrift Store prom dress scene with mom.  “Can’t you just say that I look nice?! , LB opines. Her alternative sassiness  and angst, and consummate self-centerness makes for a perfect adolescent documentary.

Lady Bird is plucky, passionate, and funny, but the film leaves little in the way of surprises in a teen’s life. A catharsis for Gerwig, maybe, but for most “ho hum”. My daughter’s rebellion would make a better story, just saying.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

“Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri” is one of the most intricately plotted films I have seen since “Murder On The Orient Express”.  We begin with three ragged billboards and a rear view mirror image of Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. Her sad eyes spawn an idea. She strokes her chin, bites her nails, and backs her car up: she is going to stoke her anger for the whole county to see.

Mildred becomes known as “The Billboard Lady”. For a year, she rents ( for 5,000 dollars a month) the three roadside signs. Blood red backgrounds hold her three messages: “RAPED WHILE DYING” ; “AND STILL NO ARRESTS”; “HOW COME , CHIEF WILLOUGHBY ?”

Her determination for revenge is so great that we think of teaching our children “ anger danger” along with “stranger danger”. The local priest tells Mildred: “Everyone is with you about Angela, but no one is with you on this.”

Church seemingly has nothing to offer Mildred. The priest deplores the revenge-filled billboards, and tells her so. Mildred gives him a hate-filled  diatribe, but later is cleansed by her burning suffering. McDormand is not exactly a Phoenix rising, but rather a more rational and compassionate soul after a series of horrendous misjudgments alter other lives, yet still keeps her seeking her daughter’s killer.

We learn about Angela, Mildred’s murdered daughter and begin to understand Mildred’s crazed anger. Mildred’s guilt for words spoken is paramount. Angela’s brother Robbie, played by Lucas Hedges of “ Manchester By-The-Sea” fame, is grieving, too, and his mother’s unconstrained ways embarrass him. Her outing to the dentist, her small town encounters, all trail  unwanted stories.

An unhinged revenge film this could be, yet the thought that what we do to each other matters gives this film a depth that garnered The Golden Globe Best Dramatic Picture.

Writer and director, Martin McDonagh, has created a  screenload of characters who are as interesting and insight-producing as I have seen. Golden Globe accolades have been given also to McDormand for Best Actress and to Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor.

The Oscars are just weeks away! And more honors are certainly to be won.

The police chief and subject of Mildred’s wrath is Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson. He is a good man, who is dying of pancreatic cancer and will leave a young family behind. Mildred does not identify with his pain, even after he shoots himself. The film often surprises and shocks as it moves are sympathies around one character and then another. We learn that revenge does not ease pain, and that some people are slower learners than others in that anger begets anger.

Dinner with James ( Peter Dinklage) proves ineffective as a softener . Mildred wears her headband bandanna like Rambo’s sister. Her ex-husband, Charlie, ( John Hawkes ) is in the restaurant with his young date. Charlie’s date brings some comic relief with her dumb-witted remarks and questions. “Polio” and “polo” tend to confuse her. Hawkes does a superb job of showing his deeper connection to Mildred while not able to deal with her unchained sorrow. He is more than a neck-grabber.

Fire serves as symbol again and again. After Willoughby’s suicide, Sam Rockwell plays the role of a lifetime as Dixon. Dixon was Willoughby’s protegee. He is grieving, too, for the only man in town who did not make fun of his denseness. Dixson’s  mother is the stereotyped racist ( Sandy Martin ). We come to understand him, and we champion his remarkable growth as a  person who shows  profound change for  the better.

Does grief kill empathy? An incredible nature visitation (or what I call the  fawn sequence ) tells us “No”. This film is quite an emotional ride.



How an imaginative idea with such promise for comedy could turn into a sappy, moralizing mess is the truly sad tale. “We are meant for something bigger” turns both greedy needies and noble problem-fixers into a tale that switches tone after twenty minutes and loses all semblance of intent. The writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are at fault. “Five years later” and “ten years later” is jarring, even star Matt Damon looks lost. This sci-fi satire can itself be satirized.

“Downsizing” ’s premise seems simple enough: overpopulation has made the earth unsustainable. Volunteer to be a “miniputian” and have every cell reduced. Humans are reduced to 4 or 5 inches. The only side effect of going small is minor dehydration. The pluses are waste reduction and the elimination of financial anxiety. The procedure is irreversible.

After four years, thirty-six downsizers hold all their refuse in half of a regular-sized garbage bag. 152,000 dollars in home equity translates to 12.5 million in “Leisureland”, where diamond jewelry  dazzles and utility bills are low. Reduced human scale is explained in a TED talk. Motivational posters dot the walls at a high school reunion. Paul and Audrey Safranek ( Matt Damon & Kristen Wiig ) are interested since they are struggling financially and a few “reduced” former classmates are doing well and laud the procedure. With megaphones the size of toothpick they chant cheerleader fashion:  “Go get small!” The first twenty minutes are funny. I especially liked the keepsake marriage bands and the transitional therapy sessions, and the mass reduction chambers, the small group Tai Chi . There are worries about small people being able to get into the country. The movie’s concept is clever. Downsizing makes sense, but the film’s conclusion does not.

Audrey bows out at the last minute, but not before her husband is shrunk. Silly apologies and divorce ensue. A year passes and Paul begins dating a single mom. We learn that Leisureland has no birds or insects yet, and no chervil ! Then the film falls apart. Nineteen seventies disco parties with drugs and nudity are supposed to help cheer our little man from Omaha. Christoph Waltz, as the rich, partying neighbor, Dusan Murkovic, plays his part to the hilt. Pool scenes are boring, but when Paul is slipped a drug and starts dreaming of his ex, viewers are snoring. Paul passes out only to see the cleaning people enter in the morning. One cleaning lady has a limp, and Paul tries to help her. Asian actress Hong Chau plays Ngoc. The stereotyped syntax is cute, but bordering on racist. “ You come with me. help my friend, now”. “Leisureland people too selfish.”

As a Vietnamese dissident, she has lost her leg below the knee. Ngoc ministers to her community, outside of the resplendent Leisureland. Her friend, Gladys, dies and butterflies hold symbolic import. Cliches abound. Paul carries Ngoc up seven flights of tenement stairs, removes her peg leg, massages her thigh, and falls in love. They go back to Norway to the original small people colony.

There is more environmental danger. Methane gas is destabilizing the world. Only three-percent of the world has heeded the call to downsize. Nobel Prize winning scientists tell us that it will take 8,000 years for the Earth to stabilize. An underground, geo-thermally powered vault becomes Noah’s Ark. Not even lovely shots of fjords in Norway can save this picture, now. Middle Earth reigns. On the positive side, you will remember Ngoc’s bossy questions and orders. “ What kind of fuck do you give me?” “ You go down stupid hole!”

The ending spouts bromides like: “ When you know death comes soon, you look around more closely.” Get ready for the butterflies…no kidding.

Watch the trailer, and skip the movie. And, as the film says, “Don’t get short with me.”

“The Disaster Artist”

Seeing moviegoers take selfies in front of James Franco’s cardboard image of Tommy Wiseau was a tad surprising, but understandable once one experiences the paen to the writer, director, producer, and star of one of the worst movies ever made. A cult film this is, and it is fun to be a part of it.

“The Disaster Artist” lovingly mocks the making of “ The Room”, a love triangle roiling in sex scenes and the ultimate suicide. Like “ The Rocky, Horror Picture Show”, repeat viewings and participation comes with the territory. While I will not see it again, I know the four men who sat behind us will. And I am curious to see the “The Room” from the frame by frame comparison shown as out-takes.

“The Disaster Artist” is a spoof on making a bad movie that has themes of loyalty, friendship, and compassion for dream-seekers. James Franco won a Golden Globe for best actor.

Wiseau is famous for being bad at movie-making, and for spending over six million dollars 15 years ago to create a betrayal film based on his own life. Wiseau advertises his film “ The Room” by renting a huge billboard for five years. The display includes his visage and his telephone number. Initially, some people thought it was a cult.

In San Francisco, June 13th , 1998 we see a group of student actors attempt to take Jean Shelton’s (Melanie Griffin) charge “to reveal themselves”. Tommy ( James Franco)  does an imitation of Brando’s “ On The Waterfront” ’s: “Stella! Don’t ever leave me, baby.” Fellow promising actor Greg Sestero ( Dave Franco) follows him out of class and asks to practice  a scene with him. Greg calls Tommy “fucking fearless”! After a hilarious diner scene, Tommy and Greg bound further and decide to move to L.A. and support each other’s dreams.

Watching this loving mockudrama makes me think of how much fun real bros James and Dave Franco must have had making this movie. It is not for everyone, but I appreciated the loyal friend tale and the mysterious Polish immigrant dream of making it in the movie business. “Everyone want to be star”, Tommy states in his unusual syntax.. Greg shares how “Home Alone” changed his life, because he was home alone, too. Tommy confides that he wants his own planet. They give “pinkie swears” and  yell, “Road Trip”. It is such adolescent indulgence for a nineteen -year- old, and crazy for Tommy, who may be pushing 50.

Megan Mulhally plays a cameo as Mrs. Sestero, Greg’s mom. Protective and suspicious of Greg’s new friend Tommy’s intentions, and fearful of her son leaving town, she quizzes Wiseau on his age. “How old are you?” A great comedic moment ensues.

Seth Rogen is the deadpan script advisor. His slow motion energy is a good foil to the frenetic cast. Questions which are really statements hold court: “Are you on my planet?”

Tommy is often late to the set. He is jealous of Amber, Greg’s new girl friend. When Greg wants to move in with Amber ( Alison Brie) ,  Tommy feels glum and betrayed. Greg has a chance to play a bit part in Brian Cranston’s “ Malcolm in the Middle” tv show. He needs one day off and his beard to stay. Tommy denies him both: “I will not give favor. “Shoot day 58 of the scheduled 49 goes on as Tommy wishes.

Writers Scott Neustadter and  Michael Weber have used Greg Sestero’s book on the filming of “The Room” as source material. The script is both poignant and silly, and says very little about the creative process. Wiseau is seen as a sensitive goof. Sequences where Tommy asks,  “ What’s the line?” will remind you of  “Whose on first?”

The soundtrack makes good use of “ Never Gonna Give Up”, “It Takes Two”, “Good Vibrations” and “What You Want”.

Enjoy the many film references: “Ready To Rumble”, “Shakespeare  In Love”, “The Birds”, “Giant”, “Rebel Without A Cause” and “East of Eden”. “Oh, Hi, Mark.” will stay with you, if no other high marks are met in this production of a production! Stay for the out-takes, and watch the Golden Globes 2018 as Tommy Wiseau tries to take the microphone from a laughing James Franco. Enough said.

“I, Tonya”

What a delightful surprise! The film’s trailers had left me cold , but “I, Tonya” may just turn out to be one of my favorites of 2017. Its title “I, Tonya” assuredly reflects “I, Claudius” in the plotting, scheming, and poisoning arena. More than a “mockumentary”, this superbly fresh film forces us to rethink our initial judgments on the event that banned Tonya Harding from ever again competing on ice.

Steven Rogers’ screenplay is pitch-perfect. And the same can be said of Craig Gillespie’s seamless directing. The tension build-up shows all the ways to disable people, making us as sympathetic to Harding as we were initially to her Olympic teammate, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 when she was purposely kneecapped. We are all implicated in our talk show laughter at “trashy Tonya”, and while Tonya is never glamorized or completely exonerated in this film, she is shown as the abused, feisty underdog~the polar opposite of the reigning figure-skating elite.

Though five inches taller than Harding, Australian actress Margot Robbie captures the fiery swagger and spirit of a little girl with ice princess dreams. Robbie, herself an amateur ice hockey league skater, was helped by skating doubles Heidi Mungy and Anna Malkova. Visual effects and actual footage of Tonya’s routines also serve to bolster Robbie and celebrate the beauty of the sport.

The film does not move chronologically, but begins with interviews. Flashbacks serve emotional purpose. One by one, the principals tell their truth, or not.  Most alarming is Allison Janney’s portrayal of LaVona Golden, Tonya’s mother, for which she won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress with Cruella De Vil flair.

Not since “Mommy Dearest” has a birth mother shown such villainous disregard for the well-being of her child. Yet, until the final coup-d-etat, she believes she is raising a strong, self-sufficient child with her “hair brush and knife throwing methods”. Her scathing admonition to Tonya contributes to her portrait as a rancorous bitch: “ You fuck dumb: you don’t marry dumb.” The irony is not lost coming from a women who has had six husbands. Tonya is the fifth child of husband number four.

On the ice at three and a half, Tonya (here Maizie Smith) proves her mettle and wins the coach who will drive her to be the first American woman skater ever to do the triple axel. The talented McKenna Grace has a few extraordinary scenes where she plays  the eight to twelve year-old Tonya. She will steal your heart as she did in “Gifted” (2017).

Robbie, while a standout and worthy of the Oscar here,  has an awkward time playing a fifteen year-old (as does Sebastian Stan as Tonya’s boyfriend, and soon to be husband, Jeff Gillooly. ) Putting braces on Robbie’s  teeth did not erase the years, or Robbie natural poise. And Jeff’s, “You Like food?” for a first date icebreaker seems forced. LaVona accompanies them to the diner, by the way.

Domestic violence, guns, and alcohol all play out with lawyers, restraining orders and reunions. The tone of “laugh til you cry” is modulated to have the viewers’ emotions roiled. It works big time. Director, cast and writer mesh to amazing effect.

Margot Robbie’s face is unforgettable as she applies her blush-like war paint before high-stepping it onto the ice. She is a powerhouse in purple.

Julianne Nicholson plays the sensible coach, Diane Rawlinson. She is a foil to the sleazy and the irrational; yet, she demands that Tonya play the game for her second chance: drop the metallic blue nails and the unconventional music, spit out the gum, watch the foul-mouth tirades, and ease up on the cigarette smoking. Tonya’s asthma inhaler is often seen on the ice. A favorite close-up shot is of her skate blade slicing the butt of her tossed smoke.

The score is well-matched from “Dream a Little Dream of Me” to “Barracuda”. The last shots of the 2003 Tonya being punched in the boxing ring  are horrendous. When she states that “violence is what I knew anyway”, we get the irony. She had become a punching bag, spitting blood as blue-collar scrapper, and staring at us from the mat’s surface.

Gender, class and politics, all play a role in mirroring and satirizing a fallen star, her associates, and the expectations of the era.

Shawn Eckhardt, the “bodyguard” and delusional emasculated male, is another sad, damaged character. “None of my women get the last word.” , he chortles as he stuffs his caramel corn into his mouth. As the perpetrator of much of the racketeering, psychological warfare, and assault, actor Paul Walter Hauser eases naturally  into the role. Docu-drama never looked easier.

Bozos hanging out at “The Golden Buddha” at the stroke of midnight fuel the humor. One only wishes that virtual reality gaming might keep RL ( real life) safer for the next generation. With avatars there may be  less infiltrating in the real world. Shawn’s brags of being four steps ahead of the FBI. And Tonya mimics her own mockers as she smirks: “ a secret agent who lives with his parents”.  As the lyrics are sung “ How can you stop the sun from shining, how can a loser ever win”, viewers will think that the disgraced Tonya won with this movie. And we will think that we did, too: A must see.