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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Perhaps the most important journalistic battle in American history gets the Spielberg treatment in The Post, featuring a stellar cast that includes Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The film explores The Washington Post’s decision to print the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam in 1971, a move that raised the ire of then-President Richard Nixon, and put the careers of people like paper owner Kay Graham (Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) in major jeopardy. Of course, Hanks isn’t the first movie star to play Bradlee: Jason Robards also played him in All the President’s Men, the classic film that covered the Watergate scandal. Bradlee, who died in 2014, was a journalism giant.

The movie starts in the mid-’60s with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a member of the State Department who is a study for then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) in South Vietnam. Embedded with American troops, Ellsberg sees all sorts of atrocities and is a firsthand witness to the growing failure of American participation in the Vietnam War. His forecast about the war’s outcome is bleak, but McNamara and President Johnson (and three presidents before him) share a rosier—and false—version with the American public.

In 1971, with Nixon in the White House, Hanks and Streep get their first scene together: They’re in a restaurant having breakfast, discussing their big controversy of the day—the White House’s meddling with their ability to cover the wedding of Nixon’s daughter. Bradlee refuses to bend to Nixon’s request to restrict a certain reporter, while Graham wonders what the big deal is. This scene is long, dialogue-rich take—and it’s basically a school in great acting.

Things progress from troubles with weddings to the war, with the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers by Ellsberg, and The New York Times printing a story about them. This move gets the Times in trouble with the Nixon administration. Bradlee and his team come into contact with Ellsberg and get the opportunity to go through thousands of pages of classified documents. They have two options: Print a deeper story on the classified documents and face potential treason charges; or bury the story to help preserve the paper, which is going through an initial public stock offering and would likely be harmed by any negative controversy.

History has told us what Graham, Bradlee and their team of reporters did—but that doesn’t make The Post any less thrilling. Spielberg not only uses The Post as an opportunity to put great actors in play; he makes The Post a grand testament to the golden age of print journalism.

It’s not just the risk-taking of editors, owners and journalists that makes The Post such an absorbing piece of history. The mechanics of producing a story for the masses in the 1970s were a little complicated by today’s standards: Journalists seeking leads with rotary phones and pay phones, and hard deadlines that had to be hit because it took a lot of time to actually publish a newspaper each day, play a big part in the storytelling. Spielberg relishes the chance to show a story getting rolled up on typed paper, shot through an internal delivery system to an editor, edited by a man with a pencil, and then placed on a costly template for publication. The sight of massive amounts of paper getting printed and then bound to be taken to the streets is one of Spielberg’s most impressive technical filmmaking feats in years.

The supporting cast includes Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the legendary TV comedians of Mr. Show. It’s a trip to see them onscreen together in a Spielberg production. Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson round out the cast.

The Post is the best Spielberg offering since Munich, bringing to an end one of the weaker stretches in his career that included the lackluster Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The BFG. It’s an impressively staged account of a pivotal moment in our history—at a time when the freedom of the press is again being actively challenged by a sitting president.

The Post is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Now Netflix is chipping in on the effort to make us all forget that filmed adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower with this adaptation of King’s Gerald’s Game, a powerhouse acting job for both Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood.

They play Jessie and Gerald, a married couple who have hit tough times. They attempt to rekindle their relationship on a holiday excursion which includes her getting handcuffed to the bed. Things go bad—like, really bad—and Jessie winds up in a truly precarious situation that involves starving, dehydrating and hallucinating.

The original King novel, of course, finds a way for Gerald to stick around for the whole movie, even after a fatal heart attack, while flashbacks show us additional traumas involving Jessie’s dad (Henry Thomas).

The movie is, appropriately, hard to watch at times, as a hungry dog comes by for a visit, and Jessie searches for ways to get her hands out of those cuffs. (Hint: Things get bloody.)

This is a career-best performance from Gugino, who carries most of the movie on her back. Greenwood is allowed to get deranged in the role, and he does just that. Visits from a ghostly giant give the movie a supernatural twist, and it gets legitimately scary.

This wasn’t one of King’s best novels (he basically ripped himself off with elements of Dolores Claiborne and Misery), but Gerald’s Game does wind up being one of the better filmed King adaptations.

Gerald’s Game is currently streaming on Netflix. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

If you thought 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was a bit over the top—and you liked that aspect of it—you’ll be happy to know that things were just getting started with Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons graphic novel, The Secret Service.

Sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle pulls out all of the stops, goes into severe overkill mode, and then somehow holds together nicely; it delivers a fun time for those who like their movies a little nasty. It’s over-long at 141 minutes, and a pug dies—but the action snaps with expert precision, and the cast kicks ass.

That cast includes Taron Egerton as Eggsy, the young recruit of Harry Hart (Colin Firth) from the first film. The Kingsman—an underground, sharply dressed spy agency in England—remains in operation after the death of Harry, who took a bullet to the head in the first chapter. Eggsy has settled down with a royal girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom), and has segued comfortably into the life of a secret agent.

As it often goes when you are just starting to enjoy your job, things start sucking badly as missiles destroy Kingsman headquarters and strongholds, leaving behind only Eggsy and techy Merlin (Mark Strong). Eggsy and Merlin wind up in America, where they meet the Statesman—secret allies doing a similar spying service for the U.S. The task force includes Tequila (Channing Tatum), Ginger (Halle Berry) and Champ (Jeff Bridges).

The two organizations join to battle Poppy (Julianne Moore, gloriously crazy here), a rich drug dealer who can afford to build a compound that looks a lot like Disneyland’s Radiator Springs in the middle of a jungle. She’s also wields enough power to kidnap Elton John, who is a very colorful hostage in her music hall.

Poppy has hatched an evil scheme to poison all of her drugs. When she calls the president of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) and demands that he pay a price for the antidote, POTUS proves to be 10 times meaner than Poppy. (An evil, selfish, conniving president? That’s just crazy!)

Does it sound like there’s a lot going on in this movie? Well, there is, and it’s probably enough to command two films; Vaughn should’ve practiced a little more restraint. This is a good, fun movie—but it could’ve been great. It still achieves greatness in some of its sequences, including a ski-slope fight that goes to dizzying extremes; just about every fight scene in the film is a decent pulse-racer.

If you’ve seen the commercials, you know that Colin Firth returns for this movie. I won’t give away the nature of his return, but I will say it’s good to have him back. Speaking as a fan of the first movie, I can accept the ridiculous plot twist that puts Firth back in the character. He’s an important part of this franchise.

Like its predecessor, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is very violent, super-profane and steeped in dark humor. This is a movie in which men wind up in meat grinders and are cooked into hamburgers for other men to consume under duress. It takes a director with chops to pull this sort of stuff off and even make it funny. Vaughn is up to the task.

While Bridges, Tatum and Berry do fine with their smallish roles, Moore basically steals the movie by portraying one of the year’s greatest, most-memorable villains. Poppy is a sick hoot, and her penchant for cooking manburgers and terrorizing Elton John make her a unique kind of evil. Moore is no stranger to getting laughs, and she gets a lot of them in this movie.

If you liked the first movie, you will like this one just fine, so go see it for a nice blast of sick action as autumn kicks off. Also … if this movie is any indication, you should be very careful to never, ever piss off Elton John.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Ethan Hawke plays an alcoholic drone pilot in Good Kill, an intriguing drama from director Andrew Niccol.

Maj. Thomas Egan (Hawke), a former pilot, now spends his days and nights remotely killing the enemy: He commands drones with a joystick, taking orders from his commander (Bruce Greenwood) and never putting himself at actual risk.

The situation leaves Egan bored, stressed out and reliant on alcohol; this creates problems at the workplace and at home with his wife, Molly (a strong January Jones). When the CIA steps in and takes over Egan’s operations, things get a little shady—and Egan is pushed over the edge.

What makes this movie work is the performance of Hawke, who just gets better and better with each movie. His Egan shows a believable combination of extreme guilt and a newer form of battle fatigue. Jones matches Hawke with her performance, and Greenwood strengthens the cast.

Niccol, who worked with Hawke on Gattaca, makes up for the recent misfire that was The Host, a Saoirse Ronan disaster. This is a different kind of war movie for a different kind of war.

Good Kill is available on demand and via online sources including Tunes and Amazon.com. It’s also now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

When director J.J. Abrams created the alternate timeline with his brilliant 2009 Star Trek reboot, it gave the franchise a chance to construct all new adventures for Kirk and Spock. It also gave Abrams the opportunity to mess around with variations on characters and adventures that we have already seen.

Such is the case with the exhilarating Star Trek Into Darkness, a movie that includes elements of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and “Space Seed” (a classic Trek TV episode).

The film starts with Chris Pine’s cocky Kirk getting himself into more trouble. He ignores Starfleet directives and rescues Spock (Zachary Quinto) from an erupting volcano, allowing a primitive alien species to set their eyes on a big UFO in the form of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Kirk gets demoted by Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), but keeps a relatively high rank thanks to his pal Pike pulling some strings.

Back on Earth, a bomb goes off in London courtesy of renegade Starfleet officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch); that same officer attacks a gathering of Starfleet commanders soon thereafter. He is pissed off, and anybody in a Starfleet uniform is his target.

Kirk and Spock find themselves en route to Klingon territory, where their homegrown terrorist has gone to hide. They have unorthodox directives from Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to target and assassinate the terrorist from the skies using torpedoes. (Echoes of drone targeting and the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden, right?)

So … you have Klingons, terror in London, commanders getting attacked and volcanoes erupting with Vulcans in their belly. That’s a pretty damned good start to a sequel, no?

The true identity of Cumberbatch’s character might not come as a surprise. Heck, his real character name is listed in the cast on IMDB.com. As for me, I remained in the dark until some jackass uncorked a spoiler on the Internet a few weeks ago. Damn you, Internet reviewer. Damn you! The Internet is a fun thing, but it sure does wreak havoc on those fun movie secrets.

Abrams gets a little heavy-handed with the Sept. 11/War on Terror allegory, but he still keeps his movie effective, and even moving at times. As for his use of a tribble—the furry pests the Enterprise contended with in a famous series episode—it is my least-favorite part of the movie. The way the tribble is utilized makes no sense and feels like a stretch.

Abrams also oversteps a bit with pivotal late scene between Kirk and Spock that is a mirror version of an infamous scene in Khan. I don’t mind him messing with the Trek legacy, but keep it original. Bring back some famed characters, and hint at moments from franchise past, but don’t blatantly copy them. There’s a moment when Spock yells a particular word that got unintentional laughs from me.

Cumberbatch does a great riff on an old adversary, and his deep voice is one for the ages. He’s one of those anything-can-happen movie villains who is frightening, yet oddly virtuous. Weller gets his best role in years as Marcus, a flawed man with an imperialistic agenda that might have some people viewing him as the film’s real villain.

Alice Eve is another memorable new addition as Carol Marcus, the admiral’s daughter and a stowaway on the Enterprise. Some of you might remember a scientist from a previous Star Trek film with that same name. Well, from now on, you’ll remember Eve, who has an obligatory underwear scene that is right up there with Sigourney Weaver’s out-of-nowhere strip in the original Alien.

Pine and Quinto might not have you forgetting Shatner and Nimoy, but they have established themselves in their roles and can probably own them as long as they want. Zoe Saldana has many shining moments as Uhura.

Simon Pegg’s Scotty, John Cho’s Sulu, Anton Yelchin’s Chekov and, especially, Karl Urban’s Bones all contribute to the party. The Star Trek franchise gets the award for Best Reboot Casting.

If you see Star Trek Into Darkness in 3-D, know that this is retrofitted 3-D. It looks OK, but you are probably safe to take in the 2-D version (although the Abrams lens flares do look pretty cool in 3-D; the man loves his lens flare).

For a film called Into Darkness, there are many, awesome shots of the Enterprise during the day. It’s interesting to see a ship usually cloaked in darkness sailing around in daytime skies, and even going underwater at one point.

There’s a pivotal chase scene in which Kirk and Spock pilot a ship that has a Millennium Falcon vibe to it. That had me thinking about the next Star Wars, and what Abrams—who will direct—plans to do with it. Abrams has a grasp on major geek real estate with these two franchises. He’s, like, the Godfather of Geeks, and he could destroy all of us with a bad chapter in either series. He’s a powerful man capable of great good—or insurmountable evil.

Fortunately, he used his powers for good with Star Trek Into Darkness, a solid piece of summer entertainment.

Star Trek Into Darkness is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director Derek Cianfrance, who helmed the devastatingly brilliant Blue Valentine, raises his ambitions for The Place Beyond the Pines, a gripping film experiment that works on every level.

Cianfrance makes a lot of unconventional moves this time out. There are many stories in this movie, with a strong emphasis on many characters. Cianfrance finds a way to focus on these characters in an efficient way that doesn’t have viewers jumping from one story to another from scene to scene. The stories progress chronologically over a period of about 16 years, with some characters fading away as others take over. The result is long, but never boring.

The film starts with a lengthy tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling’s Luke, a stunt-motorcycle driver, as he leaves his trailer and heads for his evening gig. The shot establishes that although Luke is a semi-celebrity on the carnival circuit, he’s undeniably lonely and isolated.

Luke gets some surprising news from ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes), and his life trajectory takes a drastic shift. He moves from doing stunts to robbing banks, a decision that will bring him face to face with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop with a terrible haircut. Avery finds himself thrust into upstate New York law enforcement with the big boys, which includes being around a lot of corruption. (Ray Liotta is one of the cops, so there you go. Bad stuff always goes down when Liotta is in the mix.)

Both Luke and Avery have 1-year-old sons, and the film ultimately deals with their stories when the kids hit the age of 17. AJ (Emory Cohen) is Avery’s son, a neglected product of divorce who has a marble-mouth, a taste for drugs and a violent temper. Jason (Dane DeHaan) is Luke’s son, a mild-mannered loner who knows little about his father and who gets high a lot. The two sons cross paths and become friends, and the film becomes a startling look at the results of bad fathering.

The movie is always good, but it is perhaps at its best when Gosling occupies the story. Gosling got off to bad start this year with his turn in the lousy Gangster Squad, but his performance here puts him back on track. Luke has similarities to the dark, brooding Driver from Drive (and like Driver, Luke is prone to violent outbursts). Gosling brings out sensitivity in Luke that makes him all the more tragic when his crime spree spirals out of control.

Cooper, recently Oscar-nominated for Silver Linings Playbook, is Gosling’s equal in this film, making Avery virtuous at first, but prone to devious leanings. Avery’s ambitions lead to broken marriages and a miserable kid, canceling out any heroic deeds from years before. His work here is just as strong as his work in Playbook.

As for Cohen and DeHaan, they provide Pines with an absorbing final act. It’s usually a good thing when you get a movie with a couple of memorable characters in it. Well, this film has a whole cast’s worth of memorable characters, and all of the actors get the screen time they deserve.

Mendes heads the supporting cast with an authority that she has never shown before. She’s nothing short of terrific, and it’s a performance that should open some new doors for the veteran actress. The ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn (so good in Killing Them Softly) gives a wonderfully quirky performance as Robin, Luke’s only true friend and confidant. Liotta, Mahershala Ali, Rose Byrne and Bruce Greenwood round out the cast with powerful work.

Cianfrance has made a beautiful movie, from the lush camerawork by Sean Bobbitt, to the haunting, excellent piano based soundtrack by Mike Patton (yes, THAT Mike Patton, from Faith No More). The film has something beautiful to boast in every frame. It’s a true work of art.

It’s also good for a few doses of adrenaline, something that was absent from the somber Blue Valentine. The bank robberies and subsequent chases are uncomfortable, fast and tense. Luke’s showdown with Avery after a memorable foot chase is a great movie moment.

Anybody thinking The Place Beyond the Pines is just a movie about a dude on a motorcycle robbing banks (as commercials have implied) will be in for a big surprise. It’s a sprawling work about the sins of the father—and it’s one of the year’s best films so far.

The Place Beyond the Pines is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6588; www.camelottheatres.com); and the Cinemas Palme d'Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730; www.thepalme.com).

Published in Reviews

A reckless alcoholic who happens to really know how to fly a plane gets a rather strange and romantic screen treatment in director Robert Zemeckis' uneven but entertaining Flight.

As airline-pilot Whip Whitaker—who likes vodka, beer, cocaine, cough syrup and flight attendants to excess—Denzel Washington delivers a typically great performance. The movie is excellent in the first half-hour, but just OK after that. Even though the film drags and gets a bit melodramatic or trite in spots, Washington always manages to hold it up. That's a tough task, seeing as this one clocks in at nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The film opens with Whip, hung over to the point of still being intoxicated, waking up in a hotel room. A beautiful naked woman prances around while Whip has a tense phone conversation with his ex-wife. Washington plays this scene with a wicked finesse, especially when he leers at the nude woman while arguing with the ex. It's one of those great Denzel moments. Whip then snorts a line of cocaine, dons some sexy sunglasses and a pilot's suit, and heads off to fly a jetliner with more than 100 people aboard. (Viewers will probably do a little extra scrutinizing of their pilot the next time they get on a plane.)

The flight itself is a wonder of filmmaking. Zemeckis produced a shocking plane crash before—Tom Hanks going down in Cast Away—but this sequence is among the best he has ever directed. It's amazing enough when Whip pilots the jet through a storm during takeoff. When that plane takes a dramatic plunge later in its flight, and Whip eventually flies it upside down before gliding it to a crash-landing in an open field, it's a true pulse-racer.

The crash results in minimal casualties, and Whip is initially praised as a hero. Then people start seeing the toxicology reports.

Watching Whip deal with his alcoholism and the eventual legal proceedings gets a little tedious and, at times, ridiculous. The movie hits a real low when Whip visits his co-pilot in the hospital, who happens to be pumped up on painkillers—and far too much religion. It's a scene the movie didn't need.

I'm also not a fan of how Whip conveniently picks up on an angelic heroin addict during his hospital stay. The film chickens out here, refusing to allow Washington to simply portray a man in a downward spiral. The screenwriter just had to throw in the addict with a heart of gold to make Whip more of a romantic character.

With Flight, Zemeckis and Washington have to make a somewhat despicable man worth rooting for over the course of two-plus hours. In the end, they achieve that feat, but only because Washington is almost incapable of being totally unlikable onscreen. Heck, you still liked him when his character's evil ass was getting riddled with much-needed bullets in Training Day, right?

Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle do good work as the union representative and the lawyer trying to save Whip's career, respectively. John Goodman gets some uncomfortable laughs as Whip's buddy and drug-supplier, while Melissa Leo makes a good impression in a short time as a crash investigator.

Flight is ultimately an OK but inconsistent movie about a man's struggle with alcoholism, with a stunning plane crash thrown in. Stay tuned for Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul in Smashed, a much-better movie on the subject of substance abuse coming soon to a theater near you.

<i>Playing at a variety of theaters across the Coachella Valley.</i>

Published in Reviews