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All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World is probably going to be forever linked with events that have nothing to do with the production or the true story that inspired the screenplay.  You probably know what I’m writing about.  Kevin Spacey was cast in the role of J. Paul Getty.  The film was in the can; publicity was in full swing.  There were posters in movie theaters featuring Spacey.  Then credible accusations of sexual imposition and attempted rape cropped up against Spacey.  This was in the considerable wake of the accusations against Harvey Weinstein.  These are serious enough to apparently end Spacey’s career.

Instead of pulling the film, the producers let director Ridley Scott reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes with Christopher Plummer.  Plummer had been considered for the role in the initial casting phase so he was familiar with the project and willing to do it.  Something like this would not have been possible in the days before high definition video.  It would have taken months instead of weeks to overcome the technical obstacles.

I’ll say up front that Plummer does an excellent job and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.  Getty is the centerpiece of the story despite being a supporting role and Plummer nails it.  Putting this switch in at the last minute was both a tribute to the skill of the filmmakers, particularly Scott and to Plummer’s talent and professionalism.

As a whole the film isn’t bad.  It drags somewhat in the middle but is in the end a pretty taut thriller.  And since Ridley Scott is directing, it goes without saying that it is a pretty film.

All the Money in the World is about the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, played by Charlie Plummer, the 16 year old grandson of John Paul Getty, at that time the richest man in the world.  Getty, who was notoriously stingy, at first refused to pay the ransom and since JPG III’s mother Gail, played by Michelle Williams, had married into the family, she had no independent wealth of her own.

The performances are universally excellent.  Michelle Williams does a terrific job.  She finds herself between the kidnappers and her father-in-law.  They both prove equally hard to deal with.  Mark Wahlberg plays Fletcher Chase, an ex-CIA agent who is now Getty’s head of security.  He is assigned to handle the matter.  The role isn’t really different from other things we’ve seen Wahlberg in but he does a good job.  Charlie Plummer shows equal parts pluck and vulnerability as the hostage.  Romain Duris plays Cinquanta one of the kidnappers who believably develops some sympathy for the hostage.

I suspect that whatever Oscar buzz this film has is due to the circumstances surrounding the production.  Christopher Plummer may very well get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  That may well be earned but I think his prospects are being helped by these other factors.  This isn’t the type of film that would normally get that type of recognition.

All the Money in the World is worth seeing but you can definitely wait for the DVD.

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Downsizing

Downsizing is a high concept project from Alexander Payne, who is normally known for dry comedy/dramas like Nebraska, Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendants.  He now turns this approach to a science fiction scenario.  In order to combat climate change and other ecological ills, scientists have developed a way to shrink people to about five inches tall.  This way they use fewer resources and take up much less room.  But it is a one way process and it is difficult for shrunken people to interact with the full size.  People who downsize must sever ties with friends and family.  The advantage is that whatever money you have goes a lot further.  Full-size people with moderate incomes become fabulously wealthy when they downsize.

Paul Safranek, played by Matt Damon, is intrigued by the process.   His wife Audrey, played by Kristen Wiig, is less enthusiastic but willing to go along with it because she is unhappy with their cash-strapped middle class existence.  Unable to overcome her doubts, she backs out at the last minute.  After the divorce Paul is left without the means to afford the rich lifestyle he thought he was signing up for.  He has to get a job and move into an apartment, selling the palatial house they’d bought.

He does make a few friends, though.  His upstairs neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic, played by Christoph Waltz, is a bit of a huckster, dealing in ethically questionable items.  Despite that Dusan is a good guy who genuinely likes Paul and tries to help him.  Dusan’s cleaning lady is Ngoc Lan Tran, played by Hong Chou, a Vietnamese dissident, who was shrunk against her will.  Paul, a trained occupational therapist in the full-sized world, tries to help Ngoc who has an old and badly adjusted prosthetic leg.  While trying to fix it, he breaks it and agrees to help her get her work done until a replacement arrives.

Damon turns in a good performance as a man with middle class sensibilities, who is also a little naïve.  He’s likeable enough even if you want to scream at him for making stupid decisions.  He means well.

Hong Chau’s performance has been criticized for being stereotypical.  Ngoc is bossy and a little prickly and I can see why people would think that the performance is one dimensional.  But I thought she found layers and vulnerabilities in the character.

The best thing and the worst thing about the movie is the thought that went into the concept of shrinking people.  I won’t say that they thought of everything but they thought of enough interesting aspects to make it seem like a realistic extrapolation.  They establish a believable timeline for the development of the technology.  It takes years from the original breakthrough to full implementation.  Little details are included.  People with artificial hips aren’t eligible because the process only shrinks living matter.  The entire body must me shaved and any fillings removed.  The effects were good and a lot of the visuals did a good job of portraying the odd world of the downsized.

All that information, while cool, also bogs down the plot after a while.  I could have done with less of it.  There’s no reason that this film needed to go longer than two hours.

So in the end I think you can probably wait for the DVD to see this one.

 

Darkest Hour

Taking on a recent figure, one for whom we have film footage and recordings is hazardous duty.  How can you live up to the reality?  In recent years we have seen spot on impersonations of Ray Charles and Truman Capote.  Those were risky performances that resulted in triumphs.

The risk is especially dire when the subject is a key figure in history.  I’ve talked about this before in my review of Lincoln.  Is it wise to humanize our heroes, to show that they were people with flaws who rose to the occasion, rather than beings of godlike perfection sent by some divine power to save us?

Gary Oldman is probably not the first choice of many people when it comes to casting the role of Winston Churchill.  Of course anybody can do an impression of Churchill that is good enough for people to recognize who it is supposed to be.  But physically Oldman looks nothing like Britain’s great wartime prime minister.  Oldman is thin and has a nice head of hair.  I don’t think it’s disrespectful to point out that Churchill was portly and bald.  I noticed at the end of the film that there was a credit for Oldman’s personal make-up and prosthetic supervisor, so clearly a lot of effort went into making him look like Churchill.  Oldman’s tremendous acting ability does the rest.

Darkest Hour is set during the early days of Churchill’s ascendance to the prime minister’s office, when not everybody was convinced that he was the man for the job.  He was sixty-six at the time, no longer young, and his over-fondness for scotch and cigars was well known.  Churchill’s previous record in public service was somewhat spotty.  I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that he was largely blamed for the debacle of Gallipoli in the First World War.  What’s more the deal that brought him to the office also required him to appoint Neville Chamberlin, the previous PM, played by Ronald Pickup, and his political ally Viscount Halifax, played by Stephen Dillane, to the War Cabinet.

Churchill’s first crisis is Dunkirk, a stern test by any standard.  Chamberlin and Halifax exert considerable pressure to negotiate with the Nazis who seem invincible at this point.  But Churchill was one of the first to see Hitler’s true nature and he knew the German Chancellor would not be satisfied with France.  Indeed, Churchill, who knew his history, was one of the first to discern Hitler’s true nature and had been clamoring for Britain to re-arm since the thirties.  In his mind fighting was the only option.

But he was unsure that he could convince the War Cabinet to fight.  Even the King, George VI seemed to be on Halifax’s side of the issue.  Thus this was not only Britain’s darkest hour; it was also Winston Churchill’s.

Oldman shows us vulnerability and self-doubt that we usually don’t associate with Churchill.  That makes it somewhat jarring.  We see him as befuddled at the first few strategy sessions.  He’s slow to understand the German’s new mode of warfare.  When he meets with the French leadership they come away from the summit convinced he is delusional.  There are accusations of alcoholism and incompetence.

And the movie does not imply that this is a ploy of some kind, intended to get his enemies to underestimate him.  He genuinely goes through a dark night of the soul.  Churchill doubts himself for a few weeks before he becomes re-convinced of the necessity to fight the Nazis.

There is no question that Darkest Hour is one of the best movies of the year, with one of the greatest performances at the heart of it.  How true is it to reality?  I don’t know.  Will it be disturbing to people to see one of the greatest heroes of the last century portrayed as a flawed and uncertain man?  Probably for some.  But I happen to think that it is a courageous thing to go forward knowing that you are vulnerable and that victory is not assured.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It’s finally here!  The new Star Wars movie!  This is episode VIII in the ongoing saga as opposed to the one-offs like last year’s excellent Rogue One.  The Last Jedi is also the middle episode of the third trilogy.  Often in middle episodes there are narrative problems.  They have to continue the plot of the first installment and set up the final one so there is a feeling of being dropped into the middle of a story.

So does The Last Jedi avoid this?

The answer is that I don’t know and neither probably do you.  First of all every Star Wars movie already plops you down into the middle of some plot or another, so we’re used to it.  At this point Star Wars is like a long running TV show.  We know the characters so well that we don’t really need any further characterization.

But what about someone who has never seen any of the movies and who has somehow evaded any discussions about the plot and characters?  Would they be able to understand the plot?  Would they know why everyone was in awe of Luke Skywalker when he finally appears in the final battle?  Would they be as thrilled by that moment as the rest of us were?

Of course it doesn’t really matter.  Such a person doesn’t exist.  Like Bond and a handful of other franchises, Star Wars doesn’t have to follow the rules.

I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot.  If you haven’t seen the movie, you don’t want it spoiled and frankly it’s a little convoluted and drawn out anyway.  The action is pretty much non-stop and there are some great set pieces.  There’s also a little drama, philosophy and politics mixed in but never fear, that’s all done pretty seamlessly.  Writer/Director Rian Johnson does a great job of shepherding this thing through.

When I tell you the tone of the movie is pretty dark you may assume that The Last Jedi is reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back, just as The Force Awakens recalls A New Hope.  Actually, I think the tone is closer to Rogue One.  There is a greater appreciation of how serious the conflict is and how high the price is for fighting it.

The performances are fine, especially the old hands like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher in her last performance.  They don these familiar roles like old comfortable shoes that were broken in years ago.  Daisy Ridley continues the process of rounding out Rey as a character.  There were a lot of things in there that I think foreshadow future installments.  Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren isn’t quite as whiny as in The Force Awakens but his maturation is still in process.  John Boyega as Finn is as steadfast as ever.  And newcomer Kelly Marie Tran is wonderful as Rose Tico, a mechanic, working for the Resistance who becomes smitten with Finn.

When executive producer Kathleen Kennedy and Disney took over Lucasfilm, many were nervous about the result.  I myself was hopeful and felt like they could hardly do worse than Episodes one through three.  Now after three excellent films under Kennedy’s guiding hand, I think the new management has built up considerable benefit of the doubt, much like Marvel has.  If at some point in the future they do make a clunker—and this is almost inevitable—they will survive it.

I cannot wait for the next one.

The Disaster Artist

I have never seen The Room, the film directed by Tommy Wiseau in 2003, the production of which is the subject of the film The Disaster Artist.  From the clips I’ve seen it looks as awful as its reputation.  Apparently, however, it resonated with enough people that it became a cult hit, one of those films that are recognized as so bad they’re good.

The Disaster Artist is based on a memoir by Greg Sestero, here played by Dave Franco, who co-starred in The Room and was Wiseau’s best friend.  Wiseau is played by James Franco who also directed.  When the story begins Sestero is an extremely self-conscious acting student.  The film opens as he’s doing a scene and it is painful to watch.  Afterwards Wiseau does a scene that is just the opposite; it’s way out there.  He’s writhing on the stage and climbing light poles.  The performance is also awful—the acting coach doesn’t even offer him notes—but in a different way.

Sestero is intrigued and approaches Wiseau about doing a scene together for the class.  This kicks off a strong friendship that eventually results in The Room.  They bond over watching James Dean movies and talking about their dreams of stardom and they agree to support and push each other.

The Disaster Artist is about following dreams, never giving up and being true to your artistic vision even if that vision is pretty much crap.  To me comparisons with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood are inevitable as are comparisons between Tommy Wiseau and Ed Wood.  Wood stumbled into posthumous fame and Wiseau was lucky enough to do his serendipitous stumbling when he could benefit from it.  But the plots and the messages of these two films are too identical to ignore.  You could almost regard The Disaster artist as a remake.

The acting is good.  The Franco brothers acquit themselves well, which is what you would expect since both of them are very talented actors.  The supporting cast is good too but the movie is really about Wiseau and Sestero.

The reason I couldn’t get into the story is because of the character of Tommy Wiseau.  And that’s because not much is really known about the filmmaker.  Nobody knows exactly how old he is, where he was born, and especially how he became wealthy enough to self-finance his movie.  So we have this eccentric character at the center of the story and no way to get to him or his motivations.  He’s a cypher and what’s more he’s so disagreeable and frankly cruel at times it’s hard to like him.

The irony is that the one thing that Sestero struggled with as an actor, self-confidence is the one thing that Wiseau could help him overcome.  At the end of the film Sestero is a decent, although not great, actor.  So while I can’t understand Sestero’s initial attraction to Wiseau, I do understand his loyalty later.

There’s a scene where Wiseau accosts the producer Judd Apatow, playing himself, in a restaurant and starts doing Shakespeare.  Apatow, finally fed up, tells Wiseau that it will never happen for him.  To tell you the truth, in the same situation I’d have said the same thing.  Today Tommy Wiseau is a working director and producer.  So I guess that shows you what I and Judd Apatow know.

 

Roman J. Israel, ESQ

We all have ethical lapses.  Some are large; some small.  Sometimes we get away with it and sometimes we pay, often dearly.  Life is constantly confronting us with tests and nobody can pass them all.  And if you fail a big one, God help you.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a character study of one such person.  The title character, played by Denzel Washington, is a lawyer.  He’s smart and dedicated to reform through the legal system.  He was active in the Civil Rights Movement.  For thirty years he’s worked at a firm run by one of his old law school professors, a person equally devoted to these causes.  But he’s been a back room lawyer, preparing the briefs and motions and other paperwork for his boss who did all the work with clients and in the courtroom.  The reason for this is that Roman is on the Autism scale.  He’s highly functional, even brilliant, but he’s a little off and does not function very well when interacting with other people.

So when his boss has a stroke that puts him into a coma with very little chance of waking up, the walls that protect Roman from the real world begin to crumble.  The firm has been losing money for many years—too much pro bono work—so it will have to close, cutting Roman adrift.  George Pierce, played by Colin Farrell, is brought in to wind the practice down.  Pierce acts and looks just like a stereotypical slick lawyer.  He is not averse to making a lot of money.  But he is also a former student of Roman’s boss so there is a long moribund kernel of idealism there.  He offers Roman a job in his high-powered firm.

And then the ethical tests begin.

Let’s state the obvious.  This is Denzel Washington’s movie and he runs with.  Washington is not only a great actor, he is also a bankable and beloved movie star who’s fun to watch and you want to have a drink with him.  Colin Farrell turns in a terrific performance but this is Denzel’s baby all the way.  He abandons his usual easygoing persona and inhabits this awkward and flawed individual believably and brilliantly.  To play a person who is emotionally walled off and still convey his internal struggles cannot be an easy task and Denzel makes it look easy.

And that is the only reason you need to see this film.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, is angry.  Her daughter was raped and murdered seven months earlier and the town’s police chief, William Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, has yet to find the culprit.  Mildred is so angry in fact that she uses her life savings to rent three billboards on the outskirts of town, near where she lives, accusing the chief of incompetence.

This obviously disturbs Willoughby, but it also displeases the residents of Ebbing, where he is highly regarded.  Although people obviously sympathize with Mildred because of her loss, they don’t like her tart tongue and brusque manner.   It especially upsets members of Willoughby’s small police force, most notably Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell.

This is the kind of film that plays with your expectations.  From that set-up it would seem to be obvious where your sympathies should lie.  A grieving mother with spunk, trying to get the system to find the guilty party.  But it turns out that the crime was a random event, probably perpetrated by someone passing through.  This person had never been arrested before so the DNA and fingerprints they collected from the crime scene aren’t in any national databases.  It’s a dead end and there really is nothing Willoughby can do unless he gets a break.  He also turns out to be a pretty good father, husband and boss, a little rough around the edges, but smart and compassionate.  And then there’s also the fact that he’s dying of pancreatic cancer which is an open secret in the town.  The worst thing that can be said against him is that he didn’t fire Dixon when the officer was involved in an incident where he apparently tortured some African Americans.

And of course Mildred isn’t perfect either.  Once she decides on this course of action, she sticks with it, even when her moral high ground begins to erode.   Her stubbornness is a definite flaw.  She also has an acid tongue, which isn’t always used to defend herself.  I guess you could say she’s a little mean.

So there are all kinds of moral inversions here, twists not in the plot but in your sympathies.  In that way Three Billboards is like a Coen brother’s film.  The writer/director Martin McDonagh specializes in twisty crime films having made In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.  His main influences are obviously the Coen brothers and Guy Ritchie.  But he’s managed to synthesize those borrowed elements with something of his own.  And that vision really comes to fruition here.  There is an optimism and a belief in redemption that the Coen brothers simply don’t possess.  I wouldn’t call Three Billboards an uplifting experience but it is certainly lighter than No Country for Old Men or Barton Fink.

McDonagh directs his powerhouse cast expertly and the acting is note perfect across the board.  Harrelson isn’t really stretching here but it’s a classic example of portraying a man with faults but who is basically good at heart.  Sam Rockwell’s seemingly dim, bigoted officer at first seems unredeemable but belies that expectation as the movie progresses.  The actor, who is one of the best character actors working today, sells the change.

The centerpiece performance is McDormand’s, who turns in great performances year after year.  This is one of her best.  Mildred is an old bitter crank, who somehow wins and keeps your sympathy throughout the twists and turns of the plot.  McDormand sells it every step of the way.  She’s one of the best actresses working today.

So if you go see Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, don’t go in expecting a melodrama about an underdog woman taking on the system or a violent revenge saga.  This film is an examination of the human moral landscape and a strong statement that anybody can be redeemed.  You, as an audience member have to work at it, but Three Billboards is one of the best films of the year.


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