Wonder Woman

“Wonder Woman” is, well, a wonder.  It’s a wonder that it took the DC Comics franchise so long to offer its fans this flesh and blood superhero in a starring role.   Warner Brothers has discovered that this wonderful woman has attracted an audience of both genders, perhaps because she appeals to the machismo and feminine sides that reside together in all of our psyches.  Apart from the usual action film message of action for action’s sake, there is also a nobler idea presented in this film:  that war is not good and that maybe women have a more simplistic sense of how to dismantle it than do men.  Perhaps because this film is directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, the secondary message of non-violence comes across as a dominant theme.  Yet, as with any action movie, there is the striking juxtaposition of good versus evil with a violent war as background for this film.

The film starts with a cherubic little 5 or 6 year-old Diana (Lilly Aspell) gleefully running away from her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) to watch the Amazonian warrior women in training under their general Antiope (Robin Wright) who is also the Queen’s sister.  From her imitating jabs and antics on the sidelines, it is clear that Diana is taken with these warrior women. Her mother, however, envisions a life of enduring peace since the island they live on is hidden away, presumably by a spell cast by the Greek god Zeus, and she sees no reason for her daughter to learn martial arts – we’re talking bows and arrows and swords and shields – clearly the trappings of an earlier age.

Antiope prevails as she sees potential in Diana as a warrior, and she is also aware that Diana is no mere mortal.  Through hard physical lessons and relentless training, Diana (Gal Gadot), now magnificently mature and talented, becomes a fearsome warrior.  In a parallel universe, World War I is being waged – apparently not far from the Amazonian paradise.  Through some chink in the armor that protects the island, an Allied pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his flaming biplane into the sea, just as Diana is standing watch from a cliff.  Diana saves him, but he soon drags the perverse outside world with him as boatloads of Germans rush onto the island shores.  In many respects the guns of the Germans are no match for the warrior women’s bows and arrows, but the women prevail.

Believing that all war is caused by the evil god of war Ares (who escaped the hand of Zeus and made his way into the world of men), Diana asks Steve to take her to the war – presumably the western front.  Diana believes that she can take the magical “god killer” sword with her, plunge it into the heart of Ares, and end war – not just this war but all wars.

Before arriving at the front, there is a humorous scene of Diana trying on western garb which makes for difficult martial arts maneuvering.  There is also a delightful scene of Diana (a woman, heaven forbid) entering the House of Lords where the factions are debating the possibility of continuing the war or declaring an armistice.  What makes the movie so engaging is Diana’s naivety when it comes to the ways of the modern world.  She is both flabbergasted and amused at the complexity of it all because everything is, to her point of view, rather straight forward.  In fact, this is precisely how she faces the war when she finally gets to the front.  She charges right into battle, into the oncoming fire power of machine guns, with nothing more than her shield, sword and the magical armored bracelets.  The Allies fall in behind her and it seems that peace will prevail.

But there are sinister plots in the making, and the Germans continue to develop a poisonous gas that will quickly wipe out whole villages of innocent citizens.  German commander Ludendorff (Danny Huston) encourages the evil German scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) to perfect the gas, and it is soon ready to be transported by plane to an unsuspecting world.

It is easy to pan the stereotyped characters of the bad guys; and for some audiences, the ultimate final airborne battle between Diana and Ares, who has assumed the persona of an ordinary human, may be a bit too much fireworks.  But we knew all along that Wonder Woman would prevail amid the explosions and pandemonium – which is one of the many reasons we came to see this movie.  Still, this is a giant step forward for women in superhero starring roles, and I hope it is the beginning of many.

The photography in this film is magnificent.  The sets and costumes totally capture and lend authenticity to the period of World War I London.  The acting on the part of the Amazon women is engaging and energetic.  The interaction between the young slightly irascible aviator Stephen and the thoroughly schooled but naïve Diana is priceless.  It all makes for a fun movie experience.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: it’s about what we don’t see

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

3 1/2 Stars

It’s about time I got around to seeing “Three Billboards.”  As a consequence, for a few weeks I heard the opinions of others who had seen the movie.  Most of the anecdotal reviews were negative:  over-use of profanity (don’t watch it with your mother), a dumb plot (nothing really happens), an unresolved ending (what happened next?), gratuitous violence (bar brawls, drunken rages, etc.), stereotyped red-necked characters (people who used to say the “N” word but are grudgingly reforming).  So if it were not for the many Oscar nominations, I would probably have waited to see it on Netflix.  But I am so glad I saw it on the big screen – always the first choice for a first-rate movie.

Martin McDonaugh (“Seven Psychopaths”) wrote and directed the film.  The story line is simple but also rather ingenious.  Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is the mother of a teen-aged girl who was viciously raped and murdered within the year, and the case was never even hot enough to go cold.  There were no clues; some DNA was gathered which matched no one in any data base; no witnesses; nothing to go on.  Not only were the local police stymied, they had virtually abandoned the case.  To draw attention to the unsolved murder, Mildred rents three billboards along a stretch of seldom used country road where she graphically asks Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why the crime has never been solved.

The three billboards set off a chain reaction of senseless violence (but isn’t all violence senseless?) which result in the near deaths of at least two people and the unrelated (?) death of a third.  I will not spoil the plot by telling the rest of the story, but, to my mind, the story is worth telling.  Almost everyone is angered by the billboards – even strangers passing through town.  Willoughby is beloved as lawman, mentor, father and husband.  Also, he is dying of pancreatic cancer – a secret fact that everyone in this hill town already knows.

You get the feeling that in this insular community, there can be no secrets – yet, within each of the characters so much is hidden – most of which we have to figure out for ourselves.  The festering rage that rises and ebbs in many of the characters is profound.  Mildred is clearly in the anger stage of her grief; Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) has a thuggish rage and overt racist outlook which makes him an unlikely keeper of the peace; Charlie Hayes (John Hawkes) is Mildred’s abusive ex-spouse who barely clings to the edge of control; James, the dwarf (Peter Drinklage), has his own set of bitter disappointments and challenges; and Robbie Hayes (Lucas Hedges), Mildred’s son, in contrast to the rest, has such an astonishing cool outward demeanor, considering the craziness surrounding him,  we wonder what he is hiding.

Willoughby tells Mildred in a very poignant quiet scene that often in such unsolved cases, maybe five years later some guy brags about the murder, and suddenly, though perhaps belatedly, the crime is solved and justice is served.  But Mildred is tired of waiting.  Her underlying rage and revenge are palpable.

In case you are wondering about the town of Ebbing, it will not be found on any map of Missouri.  It is fictional yet supposedly representative of small-mountain-town USA.  I like to refer to it as Effing, Missouri, which I personally believe was probably in McDonaugh’s first draft.

This cast is brilliant.  Even through the violence and the unanticipated consequences of revenge, this film is chock full of fabulous characters – each with a story that is hinted at behind the scenes.   And there are wonderful moments of laugh out loud humor in the dialogue – dark and disquieting against the rage that grows and glows.  This is clearly McDormand’s film.  She is strong, steady, often wry in her grief, but always clearheaded.  She never looks for affirmation; seldom looks for forgiveness; and is perfect advocate for her own sense of the rightness of her actions.

The Post – Strikes Contemporary Themes

The Post

4 Stars

If you are of a certain age, you will remember aspects of the Vietnam War quite clearly, though you may not recall how the unveiling of the Pentagon Papers played a major role in the ending of that war – 4 years later.  You may remember The Draft, anti-war rallies, Abbie Hoffman and the counter culture movement, Watergate, and the downfall of Richard Nixon.  In the middle of it all was a sexist culture left over from the 50’s when June Cleaver wore high heels and a dress under her apron while she alternately cleaned the oven and vacuumed the living room carpet.

In the midst of all this was Katharine Graham, the first U.S. woman publisher of a major newspaper, The Washington Post – a newspaper rescued from bankruptcy and resuscitated by her late millionaire father, Eugene Meyer, who passed The Post on to, not his daughter, but her husband, Philip Graham.  When Philip Graham committed suicide in 1963 (there was a big hulabaloo), his wife Katharine became the de facto publisher of the newspaper.

In the early scenes of “The Post,” we see Katharine (Meryl Streep) in the midst of a mostly all-male cast – a myriad of newsroom guys and a dozen or so male board members who freely speak of what they perceive as Katharine’s inability to make any weighty decisions – whether it is to put the paper up for public offering and at what price, or to run with the bomb-shell printing of stolen government documents – the Pentagon Papers.  It seems her only ally is her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks).

This Steven Spielberg film is reminiscent of the movie “Spotlight” which was another newspaper story that exposed the cover-up of child sexual abuse within the ranks of the Roman Catholic priesthood.  But the tension in “The Post” runs much higher and hotter and is more relevant in contemporary times.

Graham comes from a powerful and influential family, rubbing elbows with the power brokers in Washington, though most often deferring to their masculine judgment.  Among her close friends is Robert S. McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the US Secretary of Defense.  Although the movie does not exactly disclose it, it was McNamara who, in 1967, commissioned a written history of the US involvement in Indochina from the end of World War II until 1968, what became known as The Pentagon Papers.

In the movie we see Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) on a research mission to Vietnam.  As one of the compilers of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg became disenchanted with the role the government was playing in prolonging the Vietnam War and sought to the expose the whole mess by leaking portions of the secret documents to the newspapers.  Following the initial publication of portions of the Papers in the New York Times, the federal government got a temporary restraining order to prevent further publication of the documents – citing that the security of the United States was at stake.

By this time, The Post also had pieced together portions of the documents and received a whole boatload of the smuggled documents from Ellsberg himself.  While the Post’s lawyers (Jesse Plemons) do their best to discourage publication of the Papers, it is really Katharine who must make the final decision – publish or perish – or is it publish and then perish?

Throughout the movie we see Katharine’s indecision as she rehearses her speech to the Board concerning the proposed public offering – a speech she never gets to deliver since the men in the room preempt her.  She fiddles with her glasses and looks a bit ditzy as she struggles with her own insecurities within this high testosterone community.  But when she finally comes to the decision to publish in spite of all the well-meaning advice of the influential men who surround her, her resolution in well researched and her place in history is fully assured.

So why is this film so timely?  In our contemporary political world, disparagement of the press and suppression of the truth are all too common – and our First Amendment rights are constantly being challenged.  At the same time, though we women are a bit more evolved than June Cleaver, it is clear that too many powerful men still use their power and influence to threaten and silence us.  And in spite of the strides we have made in the world of business, academics and politics, we still have not achieved equal status with our brothers.  In some respects, it is already too late for our daughters to achieve this elevated status of equality.   What we hope for is that our granddaughters will someday stand on equal footing.

“The Post” brings these issues front and center in a way we cannot ignore.  It makes us see the sacrifices we have made as a nation in protecting our First Amendment rights and the work that is still necessary in securing these rights as well as the access to equal rights for all people.


Molly’s Game is Worth the Ante

Molly's Game
Based on Molly Bloom’s 2014 memoire, screenwriter/first-time director Aaron Sorkin has presented a fascinating biopic of the incredible life of world class skier Molly Bloom whose final crash on the slopes sent her on a meteoric rise and fall as the host of some of the highest stakes poker games in Los Angeles and New York.

Looking for a break before starting law school, Molly (Jessica Chastain) finds herself as assistant to real estate mogul Jeremy Strong (Dean Keith) who runs a weekly high-stakes poker game frequented by movie stars, executives and athletes. It is nothing for this crowd to drop several hundred thousand dollars in a single game – or, for that matter, on a single hand. When her boss turns greedy on Molly – Molly takes matters into her own hands and swings the regulars to her own game in much grander digs.

Jessica Chastain is brilliant and stunning in her role as Molly Bloom. Her charming yet cool demeanor plays well against the myriad of well-heeled male characters she invites to her private poker games and listens patiently as they pour out their hearts to her. As a result, she knows her regulars well enough to advance them credit, send them home to their wives and kids – whom she knows by name – all while keeping a professional distance, even when some try to grope her.

She carries on a successful game in L.A. until her regular, a scruffy-looking movie star (Player X, played by Michael Cera), turns the tables on her and steals her game. Player X is the antithesis of Molly. Where Molly listens with heart and bears the losses of some of her players, X is only in the game because he wants to destroy the other players. So it is no surprise when X steals Molly’s game and sends her off to New York where she sets up another game with a two year run. Then, in a pre-dawn raid, the Feds turn up at her door, guns drawn and in massive numbers, and arrest her, believing she has ties to the Russian mob. By this time, the Feds have emptied out Molly’s bank account, leaving her so penniless that she has to sell her clothes just to get by. In a telling scene, she approaches a street vendor thinking to buy a hot dog for lunch – but when she reaches into her pocket, she can only come up with two bucks – the price of a soft pretzel – and that’s lunch.

Molly is broke and has little prospects of finding a respectable attorney to face the might of federal prosecutors. That’s when she hooks up with Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elbak), a pin-striped lawyer in an elite law firm. Although Molly has millions of dollars on the street, she is unwilling to sell the paper for fear of the awful price her debtors may have to pay. Nor is she willing to give up the names of her clients for the same reason. She has scruples and is unwilling to throw any if her clients under the bus. In the end, Jaffey is able to work a deal for Molly to keep her out of jail. It is the relationship between Chastain and Elbak that is the most telling. It is in the smart talks between the two of them that we come to know the character of both of them – and we come to applaud Molly for her courage and integrity.
This is a wonderful cast. Kevin Costner plays Larry Bloom, Molly’s psychologist/college professor father who pushed her to excellence on the ski slopes and eventually out of his life. Strong performances are also turned in by Chris O’Dowd, a chatty Irish alcoholic, and Brian d’Arcy James, a terrible poker player who doesn’t know when to come in out of the rain. And if all that great acting isn’t enough, Chastain wears the most fashionable, expensive, glitzy and revealing wardrobe imaginable. No wonder she was able to sell her clothes. Mine wouldn’t bring in $50 as a charitable write-off.

The Greatest Showman – a Great Show

The Greatest Showman

3 Stars

“The Greatest Showman” has gotten really bad press from so-called critics – particularly those on Rotten Tomatoes.  But if you happen to look at that website, you will discover that the appeal to the audience is quite the converse.  The audience, for whom this film musical was made, loved it.  And so did I – as did my friend who persuaded me to see the movie with her.  But she and I are both musicians of a sort – we sing, we dance, or try to dance,  to choreographed music, and we so much appreciate the effort that goes into entertainment.  And that is the strength of “The Greatest Showman” – pure entertainment.

With music written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land), the overall strength of this movie clearly goes to the choreography (by Aussie Ashley Wallen) which is highly inventive and firmly in touch with the contemporary musical sound.  And Hugh Jackman is beyond engaging – he practically jumps off the screen – so how bad can it be if Jackman lands in your lap?

I have a habit of not reading some reviews at all prior to seeing a film.  So even though I saw posters of Jackman in a red jacket and black top hat, I had no idea this was the fictionalized and fantasized version of the life of P.T. Barnum.  I know, duh!  But I think that heightened the surprise and enjoyment of this movie for me.  Out of the blue, I was looking at the rewritten and sanitized story of the Greatest Showman on Earth.  I was not diligently and deliberately researching the historical facts.  And what a wonderful surprise.

Let’s immediately dismiss the notion that this is the real story of P.T. Barnum.  Most criticism I later read took umbrage that this was not the true-to-life P.T. Barnum – that the real P.T. was a charlatan and con man, an exploiter of “freaks”, and a thoroughly unwholesome character.  Others took issue with the introduction of characters who did not exist in P.T.’s real life – such as Zac Efron (High School Musical) playing P.T.’s protégé Phillip Carlyle and Phillips’ love interest Zendaya as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler.  Seriously, who cares?  And once you have seen the positively fantastic choreographed aerial scene between these lovers, you will realize that the film would be much less without them.  They play their powerful scenes together with electric energy.  The extraordinary talent of both is front and center.

Some of the basic framework is true, but the real Barnum was much older than Jackman portrays him in the movie – Jackman starts out as a 20-something and rapidly advances to developing the circus when his children are still – well, children.  The real P.T. Barnum was about 61 when he achieved real success.  But would you rather look at Hugh Jackman dancing across the screen or Tom Hanks? (No aspersions cast against Hanks, but he is no song and dance man and not exactly a sex symbol.)  I also noted, almost to a one, that the critics who panned this film were mostly male.  Really, guys, can’t you just relax and enjoy a musical film?  I didn’t hear such harsh criticism for “Singing in the Rain” whose plot was as clichéd as those old Astaire and Rogers films.  And as much as I adored “La La Land,” none of you bashed the choreography which was remarkably thin with only one gang opening number set on an LA freeway (all of which I loved).  The full cast numbers in “The Greatest” have audiences stomping their feet and clapping their hands.  And that’s the real test.  There are parts of this film where the energy and imagination is positively triumphant – wait until you see P.T.’s final entrance to his daughter’s ballet recital.

In short, if you stop analyzing and sit back and enjoy the great show you will not be disappointed.  Go for the ride.  For myself, I plan to see this film it again.

The Darkest Hour is a Victory – 3 1/2 Stars

Gary Oldman transforms into Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” (Jack English / Focus Features)

Gary Olman’s portrayal of the iconic Winston Churchill is positively mesmerizing and would be regarded as a “one man show” were it not for the incredible supporting cast, who – to a one – are as alive, threatening, calculating and engaging as any director could ask (Joe Wright – director).

“The Darkest Hour” details the day-by-day (sometimes feeling like hour-by-hour) story of Winston Churchill’s initial rise to Prime Minister of Great Britain on the brink of Britain’s entry into World War II in 1940.  It helps if you have seen Christopher Nolan’s movie “Dunkirk” concerning the evacuation of 300,00 British troops from the coast of France as the German army is squeezing the forces into the sea.   It seems that no naval rescue will be forthcoming as the Royal Naval fleet is too far away to effect a speedy evacuation.  This is when Britain calls on a civilian naval fleet to complete the evacuation, thereby saving most of the troops.

But “Darkest Hour” addresses the flip side of the coin – the political shenanigans taking place in Parliament– and particularly in the War Cabinet – where a greater battle seems to be raging – whether Britain should capitulate with Hitler through the mediation of no less than the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini or stand virtually alone as it faces an inevitable war against the Third Reich.  By this time, virtually all of Europe had fallen to Germany, and the United States, still recovering from the poverty of World War I, was ill prepared to enter actively into any War- with only about 100,000 active military troops, outdated weaponry and strong public opposition to entering the fray.

Recently-resigned Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dellane) were both concerned about Churchill’s erratic behavior and questioned his judgment.  They argued in favor of approaching peace talks with Germany – though history tells us it is questionable whether Halifax had real faith in such negotiations or was merely bargaining for time to rearm and accomplish the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk.

Strong performances were also turned in by Kristin Scott Thomas as Clemmie Churchill – Churchill’s level-headed wife – and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton – Churchill’s charming and devoted secretary.  Kudos also goes to Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI (remember “The King’s Speech”?).  In all, the film is supported by history for the most part.  As for the script, it seems strong enough – and with the inclusion of two of Churchill’s famous speeches, the only issue is how well Oldman could deliver them.  And deliver them, he does.  

“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival….I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” – First Speech to House of Commons, May 23, 1940.

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air…We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender… – House of Commons, June 4, 1940.

But it is Oldman’s portrayal of an oratory genius, an over-indulger in cigar smoking and whisky consumption, a politician unpopular with most of his colleagues, and a mere mortal being with the future of a nation on his shoulders that sets this performance apart from other renditions of the sometimes over-bearing Prime Minister.  For Oldman’s performance alone, this movie is a must-see.  But it also reports on the weighty history of the time in a way that makes me search my history books for confirmation and understanding.  For the most part, the film mirrors history.  (O.K. there is no evidence to support the “London tube” scene – but it is fun.)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – or is it?

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2 ½ Stars

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is an amalgam of every Star Wars film you ever saw or hoped to see – the net total of which is Cliff Notes – or Classic Comics – on film.  The good news is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been made presentable.  The powers that be at Disney, who owns the Star Wars franchise, have seen fit to sort of resurrect Skywalker who for years has been relegated to the mysterious abandoned island of Ahch-To (“gesundheit”).  And you will like Skywalker – no longer the actor who was mysteriously miscast in the original film – and whose lack of talent was discovered too late.  As a result, Skywalker was stashed away on the mysterious island/planet rather than subject millions of viewers to his incredible lack of talent.

But as a senior reluctant guru, he is quite passable.  In fact (spoiler alert), I was a little sad when Skywalker disappeared into the ether of Ahch-To.  One minute he was sitting on a rock; and the next, only his cloak remained – and that too blew away.  Sorry to see you go, Luke – just when you were getting the hang of it.

Meanwhile, back in the inter-planetary world far away, the Rebels are on the run.  A bunch of them get knocked off – but their objective is merely to escape the oblivion the First Order is preparing for them.   All they want to do is survive another day – so the saga may continue.

As to “the last Jedi,” we can think of him/her as Luke Skywalker or, as I prefer, the new generation of Jedi in the feminine persona of the orphan girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) who comes to believe in her own remarkable powers under the tutelage of an older and guru-like Luke Skywalker.  Rey has risen from the ashes of caretaker of the Fathiers – these race horse-like creatures introduced to demonstrate the abusive way even into the future that mankind/creature-kind continues to abuse its lesser creatures, all in the name of amusement.  You will be pleased when these creatures are set free.

So who are the old-timers back for a rerun?  There is Princess Leia (Carey Fisher), older and often struggling through her lines.  Leia is the founder and General of the Resistance against the First Order. She and Han Solo had a son Ben, who adopted the name Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) after turning to the dark side of the Force.  For a minute there it seems as if Rey will be able to turn Ren, but then where would we be?

Yoda (Frank Oz) is back.  So are R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee), Chewbaca (Joonas Suotamo), droid BB-8 (Bryan Herring and Dave Chapman) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels).  Reunions are good, but these additions add little to the plot – except that BB-8 does some remarkable piloting of diverting space-craft.

It is all rather sad, in a way.  There are no real heroes because we are talking about a very small crew of the Resistance which barely escapes with their lives – and they are still on the run even a the credits roll.  Whatever is in store for them must be viewed in the rear view mirror of their fugitive spacecraft.  There is little to celebrate here.   It is more of a preview of coming attractions for the next episode – Star Wars IX.  But I suspect if you are a fan, it is enough to keep you coming back for more, however unsatisfying this episode has turned out to be.

Clearly there are a few who will never return:  Princess Leia (although she didn’t die in the film, she died in fact), Luke Skywalker, Snoke (Andy Serkis), Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and countless extras who were blown into the oblivion of outer space.

This is not a particularly memorable film, but it is a sad one, because Carrie Fisher passed away while the film was in post-production, and many of the lines in the film seem to be a tribute to her.  But that you will have to see for yourself