Theron’s astonishing Megyn Kelly is a “Bombshell”

Bombshell (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon) – Get your Oscar ballots out and write down Charlize Theron’s name for Best Actress for her depiction of Megyn Kelly in this scathing look at sexual harassment at Fox News.

The toxic culture created by Roger Ailes and practiced by Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and others has been explored in magazines, newspapers, and in the devastating TV mini-series The Loudest Voice.  In short, Ailes (Lithgow) was a pig.  He was also a brilliant propagandist and a formidable kingmaker.

An all-star cast led by Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie provide an insider’s view into Fox News, just one piece of the Rupert Murdoch-owned media empire.  As told by Oscar-winning screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Big Short), Fox News is a house of open secrets, run by men and a passel of enabling women.

Its female anchors either comply with Ailes’ not-so-subtle sexual advances or they get fired or relegated to low-rated timeslots.  Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) was the first to come forward.  Having been taken off the morning Fox & Friends and given a lousy afternoon time, she makes too many waves, gets fired, and files a lawsuit against Ailes.  An internal investigation follows led by Murdoch’s sons, Lachlan and James.  Meanwhile, Kelly, the only prime-time anchor at Fox, struggles with whether to support Carlson.  She owes her career to Ailes, who sexually harassed her early in her career at Fox but backed off. Kelly, a lawyer, uses her investigative skills are her staff contacts to do some research of her own.  By the time she gets interviewed by the investigators, other women have told their stories.  But Kelly holds the key to the story going viral.

Robbie plays a composite character, Kayla Pospisil, whose career ambition gets the better of her.  She moves from Carlson’s show to O’Reilly’s, then parlays an elevator conversation with Ailes’ assistant, Faye, into a private meeting with the boss.  It turns ugly.  But Kayla goes back again and again.

Bombshell is a skewering of Fox News.  John Lithgow is positively creepy as Ailes.  Padded with a fat suit and prosthetics, he makes a better Ailes than Russell Crowe in The Loudest Voice.  Plus, there are so many cameos that it looks like actors lined up to be part of this expose: Allison Janney (as Ailes’ lawyer), Kate McKinnon (as a closeted lesbian), Malcolm McDowell (as Murdoch), Connie Britton (as Beth Ailes), Holland Taylor (as Faye), and Richard Kind (as Rudy Giuliani).  The actors depicting O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Chris Wallace, Brett Baier, Jeanine Pirro, Geraldo Rivera, and Greta Van Susteren all do a creditable job.

But the star of this film is Theron (who is also one of the producers), who looks, talks and moves so much like Megyn Kelly that I doubt you could tell them apart in a photo or in a live-action video clip.  It is by far THE best physical portrayal of a real person I have ever seen.  You will swear that Kelly is playing herself. But her performance is much more than that.  It is agonizingly real, strong and tortured.

If you hate Fox News, you will love this movie. If you are a Fox News lover, you might enjoy it, too.  Either way, Bombshell is a realistic depiction of the toxic work environment that shapes the way millions of people get the news.

“The Two Popes” blessed by great script and acting

The Two Popes (Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce) – In 2005, Joseph Ratzinger was selected to succeed John Paul II following the popular pontiff’s death. He was selected over Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio by the College of Cardinals.  The Netflix film, The Two Popes, begins when Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, summons Bergoglio to the Pope’s lavish summer home.

As depicted in the film, which is “inspired by actual events,” Pope Benedict dresses down the Argentinian as too liberal.  Yet these two philosophical opposites develop an unexpected chemistry.  As history will note, Benedict eventually retires/resigns after eight years as Pope. Bergoglio succeeds him as Pope Francis.

Writer Anthony McCarten, whose credits include outstanding screenplays for The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, imagines this magical visit as a journey of personal connection rather than one of ecclesiastical reconciliation.  The script is clever and funny, not brooding or confrontational.

To make it work, Oscar-nominated Director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener) gives his two veteran actors, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, plenty of space.  The chemistry is palpable.  We see flashbacks of Bergoglio as a young priest who was sometimes viewed as an appeaser to Argentine strongman Juan Peron.  He sees himself as a flawed man trying desperately to atone.  Meanwhile, Pope Benedict struggles with his own failure to confront sexual abuse by priests worldwide.

Hopkins and Price make the movie.  Expect Oscar consideration for both, for McCarten and perhaps for the film. Remember, of course, that the story is not history; it’s supposition and perhaps rationalization.

If this film were strictly playing in theaters, you may want to wait for it to get to video or streaming.  But since it is playing on Netflix, sit back and enjoy the interplay of Hopkins and Pryce.

All you need to know: Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci

The Irishman (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci) – Marty Scorsese deserves to be on the Mt. Rushmore of Hollywood.  His collaborations with Robert De Niro stand as a testament to the cinematic arts.  These two movie greats co-produced the much-heralded Netflix film, The Irishman.  Their film boasts an incredible critics’ “Metascore” of 94 percent on imdb, perhaps the highest ever.  Who am I to argue?  There is no doubt this is a very fine film, but it is not for everyone.

At 3½ hours without an intermission, The Irishman is meant to be watched at home.  It could have been shorter.  But Scorsese knew he had the unique opportunity of directing for a home-based audience.

It allows him to explore deeply the three main characters of this mob film: De Niro as Frank Sheeran; Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino; and Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa.  Scorsese and these three Oscar winners have immersed themselves in mob genre.  Goodfellas, Casino, The Godfather, and The Departed are just a few of the award-winning films featuring one or more of these four legends.

All three characters were notorious real people.  The movie is told from the perspective of Sheeran, the ultimate blue-collar mob soldier.  Bufalino was a true mob kingpin.  And Hoffa was the most powerful union boss in history, corrupt as hell but beloved by his fellow Teamsters.  Pacino faced the toughest task – portraying a well-known historical figure.  In typical Pacino fashion, he plays Hoffa over the top but not as a caricature.  Pesci, who continues to easily cross from drama and comedy, was surprisingly subdued.  De Niro, of course, carries the film firmly on his shoulders as Sheeran.

As the movie opens, we meet Sheeran, a truck driver who delivers sides of beef.  To make extra money for the family he loves, he starts to cut corners, selling portions of his cargo to others, skimming from his clients.  One fateful day in rural Pennsylvania, his truck breaks down at an all-too-familiar intersection with a gas station and a Stuckey’s. As he tries to identify the problem, a well-dressed stranger (Bufalino) comes over and quickly diagnoses the problem as a timing chain.  Fast forward as Sheeran gets deeper into the mob world and becomes a reliable, quiet Forrest Gump-like presence. He happens upon Bufalino, and an alliance is formed.  It is Bufalino who introduces Sheeran to Hoffa and quickly becomes the labor leader’s bodyguard and confidante.  Scorsese uses these characters to introduce us to some of the biggest mobsters, lowliest thugs, and politicians of the day.  It’s graphic, a touch gratuitous, and deadly serious.

The Irishman is both a fine character study and a vivid period piece. It is a glimpse into a world few people really experienced but which has been memorialized forever in dozens of films.  Like war movies, it might be time to move on.  If mob movies are not your thing, you can save yourself the 3½ hours.  If you hate screen violence, skip it.  But if you want to see great acting, perfect direction, and wonderful storytelling, dehydrate yourself and watch The Irishman.

“Cats,” the movie, makes lasting Memories

Cats (Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Francesca Hayward, James Corden, Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson) – Cats, the enormously popular Broadway play, is a confusing story about … well … cats.  Different kinds of cats.  It was groundbreaking because, normally, actors on stage play … well … people.  Cats, the musical, was somewhat a political statement about diversity.  Thank goodness that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the score and, most importantly, the fantastic song, Memories, which was sung by Betty Buckley on Broadway.

I was not excited about seeing the movie.  I should have been.  The movie is way better than the play.  I could actually follow the story.  The cast — great actors, singers, and dancers all — was inspired.  The costumes, art direction, sets, choreography, direction and special effects are all worthy of Oscar consideration.  Hearing Jennifer Hudson sing and reprise Memories is heart-stopping.  Watching little-known Francesca Hayward, principal ballerina of The Royal Ballet, dance, sing, and inhabit the screen as Victoria is mesmerizing. Judi Dench, as Old Deuteronomy, commands the screen and totally commits to a role invented for a man but befitting her status as England’s thespian icon.  The comic relief, provided by James Corden and Rebel Wilson as Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots respectively, keeps us laughing.

Based on T.S. Eliot’s poems, Old Possum’s Nook of Practical Cats, Cats, the movie, runs 50 minutes shorter than the musical.  It shows.  The movie is a tight, fast-moving opera with stunning costumes and sets. Kudos to Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper, who helmed Les Miserables, The Danish Girl, and The King’s Speech, for masterfully crafting this film and getting the most out of a huge cast.

If you are looking for enjoyable family films during this holiday season, look no further than Cats and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.  These two movies are must-sees with the kids and grandkids this December.

Secrets wash through “The Laundromat”

The Laundromat (Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas) – In perhaps the most bizarre movie of the year, The Laundromat isn’t what you think.  It has nothing to do with a laundromat. It has to do with secrets.

When you look at the cast — Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, and Antonio Banderas — as well as the director, Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich, Traffic), this film has to be must-see-streaming TV.  Well, maybe not!

The Laundromat is a “break-the-fourth-wall” comedy in the mold of The Big Short.  But it’s nowhere near as good.  The topic du jour is the mysterious universe of offshore companies, shell corporations, tax avoidance, and international reinsurance.  It’s the world of laundering money – the laundromat.

Soderbergh takes the screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (from the book by Jake Bernstein) and turns it into a trip from upstate New York to Nevis to Panama.

Streep plays Ellen Martin, whose husband (played by James Cromwell in a cameo) dies in a tour boat accident on Lake George in upstate New York.  When the boat owner’s insurance company balks at paying the claims for the dead passengers, we find out that that the insurer doesn’t even exist and has offloaded the bargain basement-priced policy to an offshore reinsurer, which doesn’t really exist either.  Behind all this are two slick hustlers played by Oscar winner Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas.  They own a law firm headquartered in Panama that masterminds the impenetrable web of deceit.

This premise might have made a fine movie if Soderbergh, Streep et al hadn’t turned it into a deceptive political statement complete with a last-minute “reveal” that I saw coming a mile away.  That “reveal” has caused quite a controversy stoked by political correctness.  If you are intrigued enough by that, you’ll need to sit through this short 95-minute film.

At the end of the day, this is the most disappointing Meryl Streep movie since Lions for Lambs, the Robert Redford propaganda film that starred Streep, Redford and Tom Cruise.  I know people who won’t see Streep movies because of her liberal politics.  I think that’s ridiculous unless her movies are politically motivated and executed.  The Laundromat is one of those movies.

It’s on Netflix so all you will do is waste an hour-and-a-half of your life if you watch it.  Thus, you don’t have much to lose.  Better you should spend your time on much better Netflix offerings.

Happy Holidays: “Marriage Story” is a really sad story of divorce

Marriage Story (Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver) – With five Golden Globe nominations already, Marriage Story is misnamed. It’s really Divorce Story, the disintegration of a marriage between two thespians whose lives are in a downward spiral despite or because of their impending success.

In a very “talky” script by writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as Nicole and Charlie. He is a director trying to work his way to Broadway through his own theater company. She is the best actress in the troupe. As we find out, it was love at first sight … or was it? They did avant-garde plays together, got married and had an adorable son. As the movie opens, we hear them talk about what they love about each other. Soon it becomes apparent that all is not well off-Broadway.

He is taking his play to the Great White Way but not with her because she got a part in a TV sitcom back in her hometown, Los Angeles. He hates LA; she is not willing to put her career on hold for his Broadway dreams. The only things they clearly agree on is that they both love their son and that they both want each other to succeed.

As the two hours and 17 minutes drone on, she decides that she may have never loved him, never had the space she needed to grow, and feels stuck in New York while her heart is back in La-La-Land. He just loves directing, adores New York, and enjoys the struggles of the theater and the possibility of residencies and grant money that he can pour back into his theater company. Irreconcilable, she wants to break free, hires a shark of a lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), and we’re off. He picks his own expensive lawyer, Bert (Alan Alda), who seems more grandfather than fighter, and eventually switches to slick Jay (Ray Liotta), who is a high-priced street fighter. It all gets very ugly, the way most show business divorces apparently do.

The uniqueness of this story, I suppose, is that these two people don’t want to be fighting each other. They really care for each other. But their career circumstances just make life together impossible. But regardless of their ongoing love, their lives (particularly his) are torn apart. There is one memorable and incredibly long monologue that Johansson delivers beautifully to Dern. And there is one incredible scene between Scarlett and Adam that almost makes the film worth the 137 minutes.

There is little happy about this film. To Baumbach’s credit, his rapid-fire dialogue is reminiscent of Woody Allen but not nearly as neurotic, funny or ironic. Both actors make the most of the wordy script. For the audience, the joy is watching the supporting cast. What could be better than seeing veterans like Alda, Liotta, Dern and Julie Haggerty (who plays Nicole’s spacy mom)?

This Netflix film moved right to streaming video while opening in limited release to qualify for Oscar season, following the lead of Roma and Mudbound from the last couple of years as well as The Irishman, The Two Popes, The Report and Laundromat this year. So, as long as you are paying for Netflix, you might as well watch Marriage Story.

Clint Eastwood takes liberties with “Richard Jewell”

Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde) – During the 1996 Summer Olympics, a devastating bomb went off in Centennial Park in Atlanta during a concert.  More than 110 people were injured, and one person died when a backpack bomb exploded in the park.  A security guard, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), found the suspicious backpack, alerted the police, and aggressively moved people out of harm’s way before the bomb exploded.  For three days, he was celebrated across the country as a hero. Then this feel-good story took a surprising and ominous turn when the FBI targeted Jewell as the bomber and the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that story.

Richard Jewell effectively tells Jewell’s story, which is to say it shows how Jewell was unfairly vilified in public.  It reveals the agony that his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), felt.  It introduces us to Jewell’s enigmatic lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).  Unfortunately, it also either invents, projects, or just plain makes up the questionable, deplorable and illegal actions of the FBI as well as the allegedly unethical manner in which the reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), broke the story by coercing the lead FBI agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), to tell her about Jewell’s being investigated.

Especially these days, it would be easy to believe that the FBI took the easy route in identifying Jewell as the likely culprit and dismissed any evidence to the contrary.  And in the Trump anti-press, anti-female era, it might be popular to believe that a female reporter used her sexual charms to entice the FBI agent to give her a scoop.  The former is more likely to be true than the latter.  The FBI eventually dropped the Jewell inquiry and took even longer to find the real bomber.  But the Atlanta Journal Constitution vehemently denies that there is any truth to the claim that Scruggs (who died of a prescription drug overdose at age 43) slept her way to a scoop.

The fact that Clint Eastwood, legendary actor, director, Republican, conservative, and bizarre chair-interviewer, helms this movie might explain why the media and the FBI are portrayed as caricatures.  The same might be true of screenwriter Billy Ray, whose Breach told the story of FBI spy-in-residence Robert Hanssen; State of Play, whose compromised journalist Kyle McAffrey eventually reveals the truth about his Congressman friend; and Shattered Glass, the story of disgraced New Republic reporter/fabulist Stephen Glass.

All that said, Richard Jewell is riveting.  As we meet him, Jewell is not a particularly sympathetic figure.  He is a misfit, a socially awkward police wannabe who owns an arsenal of guns and spends his free time at a shooting range and a video arcade.  Paul Walter Hauser, who was memorable in both I, Tonya and Blackkklansman, deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal as Jewell.  Rockwell continues a run of fine performances as the unsuccessful, reluctant lawyer who takes the case.  Kathy Bates never misses a chance to shine, and she does just that as Jewell’s loving, enabling mother. John Hamm is wasted as Shaw while Olivia Wilde is lost as Scruggs.

If you can ignore the fabricated parts of Richard Jewell, this is a very engaging film where you will learn quite a bit about one of the most infamous cases in recent American history.

Redmayne & Jones soar in The Aeronauts

The Aeronauts (Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne) – The Theory of Everything featured Oscar-worthy performances for Eddie Redmayne (he won) and Felicity Jones.  They have been reunited in The Aeronauts, the story of weather forecasting pioneer James Glaisher (Redmayne).  Jones plays Amelia, a fictional compilation character who pilots the balloon that (actual) scientist Glaisher uses to try to fly higher than any person ever has.  The movie is set in London in the mid-1800s.  Not taken seriously by the scientific community, Glaisher is dismissed by his academic colleagues as a dreamer for thinking that weather can ever be predicted or forecast.

The only flying machines in the day were balloons. He seeks out Amelia, who is an experienced pilot with a flair for showmanship.  She also is haunted by the death of her husband in a balloon accident that went awry.  Their upcoming flight is considered by the public more circus entertainment than scientific journey.  Glaisher is not amused by Amelia’s antics.  They take off and climb high into uncertainty, danger, calamity, joy, and peril.

The acting, costumes, art design, stunts, and special effects are superb.  The drama is palpable.  However, the movie doesn’t feel great.  It’s too long, too talky, and too unlikely while given the dreaded “inspired” by a true story.  In reality, Glaisher made the ascent with pilot Henry Coxwell, who was kind of the Chuck Yeager (famed test pilot) of his day.  Amelia represents the female aeronauts who were more numerous than you might think.  By inventing Amelia’s character, it allowed writers Jack Thorne and Tom Harper (who also directed) to create a back story for Amelia, showcase a female pioneer, and create at least the possibility of a romantic relationship

Jones and Redmayne demonstrate great chemistry again.  Redmayne is impressive as the driven Glaisher.  Jones portrays Amelia as flamboyant, no nonsense, and totally competent.  In fact, Jones’ Amelia reminded me of Amy Adams’ Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.  In fact, it is not much of a stretch to believe that the character name was inspired by Earhart, the legendary, pioneering airplane pilot.

The film works as a heroes-in-peril story.  It doesn’t particularly work as historical drama.  The Aeronauts comes from Amazon Studios, which tells you that it will be featured on the streaming service either at the same time as it debuts in theaters or shortly thereafter.  You can afford to wait until it gets to Amazon Prime unless you are looking for a holiday movie with empty seats.

The Report is just boring

The Report (Adam Driver, Annette Bening) – Adam Driver and Annette Bening scowl their way through The Report, the story of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the use of EITs – Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (also known as torture) in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These fine actors are worthy of a better script and film than The Report.  Maybe they never had a chance.

Driver plays Dan Jones, an investigator for the committee whose team paws through tens of thousands of e-mails, memos, and documents that prove that the CIA, other intelligence agencies and private contractors pushed interrogations way beyond moral levels to get information about Al Qaida, Saddam Hussein, and other terrorists.  They used techniques authorized by the Bush Administration and covered up by them and the Obama Administration.  And, oh yes, the techniques didn’t work.

But if you believe this movie, every Republican, intelligence official, and many Democrats ignored the information or were deceived.  Only Jones, his small group of investigators locked up in the basement of the Capitol, and Senate Intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein (Bening) knew the truth.  Jones moves from truth seeker to obsessed moralist to occasional whistleblower.  Feinstein never moves at all … or at least Bening never gets out of her office or the secure SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility).

Now I get it.  It is hard to make an exciting film about a handful of people who spent six years reading.  Or to create drama from meetings in a senator’s office or a conference room.  Mostly, Driver and Bening look earnestly incredulous while raising their voices – mostly at each other.  Boring!  To make the movie even modestly dramatic, there are flashbacks to war zones to show waterboarding and other EITs as military and intelligence personnel cross the line of human decency and legality.

The Report is one of several movies debuting on screening services (Amazon, Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix) at the same time as they open in limited release in theaters.  This makes the movies eligible for the Oscars, a controversial trend best exemplified by movies like Mudbound and Roma.  This year’s most heralded joint release is Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

The Report is not a great film. But if you want to know at least one version of the backstory behind the way the use of EITs was made public, you may want to watch it … particularly if you already pay for Prime Video.

“Dark Waters” swims in familiar territory

Dark Waters (Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman) —  If you liked the 1998 John Travolta film, A Civil Action, you will enjoy Dark Waters.  Mark Ruffalo stars as Rob Bilott, a corporate lawyer from Cincinnati who takes a case about chemical contamination in a town in West Virginia.

As in A Civil Action (also based on a true story), the case becomes a compulsion for Bilott.  It becomes his life, his only case.  It impacts his health, his family, his stature in the firm, and his reputation.  His obsession lasts years as he fights DuPont, the kind of company he used to defend.  As he uncovers their deceit and the hundreds of lives their actions have impacted, the audience in drawn in.

Filmed in dark tones and replete with atonal, ominous music, Dark Waters attempts to turn a dull, prolonged legal case into a taut drama.  It succeeds about as well as A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich does, which is to say it is clearly contrived but not boring.  It is a character study with an interesting story where the outcome is predictable.

Ruffalo is perhaps the least well known 3-time Oscar nominee.  He has done best in ensemble films like Spotlight, The Last Castle, the Now You See Me films, and a series of super-hero movies, but he is also an incredibly reliable reluctant-hero type.  His co-stars in Dark Waters, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, and Victor Garber, deliver good but not memorable performances.  Hathaway, particularly, seems wasted.

I doubt this film will garner much box office, but it is well worth your time if you enjoy these types of “loner takes on corrupt corporate giant” stories.