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3 Poli-Biopics I’m Finally Getting Around To

Apparently because the nation has been enraptured by politics over the last several years, Hollywood has stepped up to produce a number of films covering controversial political figures from years past. Here I’m going to take a look at three of them – in chronological order, both by the years the films were released, and the years in history the movies take place. So that means we begin with:

LBJ (Rob Reiner, 2016) 


Although it skips around through the early ‘60s, Rob Reiner’s 19th film largely concerns Lyndon B. Johnson’s experience in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Woody Harrelson, in heavy make-up and prosthetics, plays LBJ, who is suddenly thrust into the presidency, a position he wanted, but not under such circumstances. Harrelson’s LBJ argues with advisors (at one point while on the toilet), and Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), and has a few tender moments with his wife Lady Bird Johnson, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has a fakes nose that is as pointy and down-turned as Harrelson’s prosthetic.

There are also choice turns by Richard Jenkins as the racist Senator Richard Russell, Bill Pullman as the smug, Senator Ralph Yarborough, and the dead on Jeffrey Donovan as John F. Kennedy (Donovan also played Bobby Kennedy in Clint Eastwood’s J. EDGAR). Harrelson does a admirable job as LBJ, but despite his facial embellishments he doesn’t really get lost in the Texan democrat’s persona.

Despite this, LBJ is Rob Reiner’s best film in years (maybe decades), but with its TV movie-style melodrama it’s far from essential.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (Dir. John Curran, 2017) 


Jason Clarke (ZERO DARK THIRTY, FIRST MAN) portrays Senator Ted Kennedy in this tense treatise that depicts the 1969 (5o years ago this month) accident in which Kennedy drove his car into Poucha Pond in Chappaquiddick killing a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, played by Kate Mara (House of Cards, American Horror Story, THE MARTIAN). The flames of the budding scandal are fanned by the fact that Kennedy waited 10 hours before reporting the accident, and attending Kopechne’s funeral, wearing a neck brace, although he wasn’t injured in the incident.

Clarke’s Kennedy grapples with his guilt versus his ambition as his lawyers, including two comic actors in serious roles – Ed Helms as Joe Gargan, and Jim Gaffigan as Paul F. Markham – who try to convince him to turn himself in. On the opposing side, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., (Bruce Dern) says to him “alibi.” Curran, whose seventh feature this is, has fashioned a historical thriller that’s compelling throughout. It’s also a devastatingly dark reminder of how much tragedy the Kennedy dynasty suffered in the ‘60s.

THE FRONT RUNNER (Dir. Jason Reitman, 2018) 


Unlike the previous two films reviewed above, this drama is about a now obscure political figure, Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), whose chances of winning the presidency in 1988 went down the tubes when his affair with model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was exposed by the press. The film features a lot of consultants strategizing about Hart’s campaign, and his indiscretions, while the candidate repeatedly says that it’s none of anyone’s “goddamn business!” Speaking of business, one major factor in Hart’s downfall was a photo of him taken with Rice on his lap on a yacht named “Monkey Business.”

Surprisingly this photo isn’t touched on in this film, except in a few quick mentions. I was expecting a full re-enactment, and repeated showings of it when it got leaked. This surprised me because it was one of the aspects that people (like me) who lived through the scandalous events, most remember. The film’s editing, by Stefan Grube, is often choppy, yet the film is often drawn out and dull – a good 20-30 minutes could have easily been cut out. 

Under his obvious wig, Jackman is fine as Hart, but the part is underwritten with a lot of repetitive dialogue. Maybe thats accurate to the real Hart, but it makes for some shake your head moments.

But although the movie is the weakest of the three covered in this post, it has the strongest supporting cast. Vera Farmiga plays Hart’s wife, Oletha, J.K. Simmons works it as Hart’s campaign manager, Alfred Molina portrays the Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, Kevin Pollack briefly appears as the Miami Herald publisher, and comedian Bill Burr smarms his way through a role as a reporter. THE FRONT RUNNER doesn’t have enough to say to make it truly worthwhile, but parts of it are watchable, and at least its attempt to make a statement about tabloidism infiltrating the political system show some admirable ambition.

Post note: At one point in THE FRONT RUNNER, Alfred Molina’s Ben Bradlee says to a group of reporters: “I swear this is true. New Year’s Eve, after Jack died, Lyndon Johnson sites down with a whole bunch of us, pulls us in close and says. ‘Boys, you’re gonna see a whole lot of women coming in and out of my hotel suites. I want you to pay us the same courtesy you did Jack.”

Whether or not this is true, it’s an element that isn’t included in LBJ, reviewed above.

More later…

SOLO: A Passable STAR WARS STORY With No Real Surprises

Opening tonight at every multiplex from here to a galaxy far, far away:

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

(Dir. Ron Howard, 2018) 
Now that we’re starting to get used to the idea of having a new STAR WARS movie every year, here’s the highly anticipated young Han Solo adventure which fills in the intergalactic space smuggler’s back story. 

Fans will finally get to see how Han meet Chewbacca (and give him his nickname, Chewie), how he got his treasured blaster, how he won his beloved ship, the Millenium Falcon, from Lando Calrissian; and how the hell he ran the Kessel Run, first mentioned in the original 1977 film *, in under 12 parsecs.


But the obvious question is: do fans really need to see how these things happened? Maybe they were best left as asides in movies from 40 years ago?

Anyway, Alden Ehrenreich plays the 28-year old Han (we also see how he got his last name, and it’s kind of GODFATHER PART II-ish) who we first meet as a slick street thief in the lawless world of Corellia. Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (a brunette Emilia Clarke, you know, the blonde who loves dragons from Game of Thrones) scheme to escape the drudgery of Imperial shipyard slums, but they get separated after a lightspeeder chase.

Han ends up joining the Empire to become a pilot, but because he’s Han, he gets expelled from the academy, and he meets up with a gruff as usual Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, a criminal scoundrel with a crew who will give Han lessons in how to be a criminal scoundrel. One of the first lessons is, of course, trust no one.

Finnish basketball player Joonas Suotamo takes over from Peter Mayhew for Chewbacca whose first encounter with Han I won’t spoil, Westworld’s Thandie Newton plays Beckett’s lover/crime partner, and most importantly, a smooth as ice Donald Glover steps into Billy Dee Williams’ shoes as the iconic Lando, stealing every scene he’s in.

With respect to not spoiling plot points, I’ll just say that the premise involves a heist (will all the STAR WARS STORIES be heist flicks?) in which Han and crew set about stealing some of the plutonium-like Coaxium (McGuffin!) from mines on the planet Kessel for the slimy yet dapper crime lord Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany), who appears to have Han’s love, Qi’ra, under his command.

All the things you’d expect in a STAR WARS movie are here from tons of blaster fights, scrapes with storm troopers, quipping robots (Lando’s droid, L3-37, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge fulfills that function), gripping space battles with TIE Fighters, etc. Well, everything, that is, except the Force.

For the first time, the Force isn’t part of the story. Nobody has it or speaks of it – I didn’t see any lightsabers – so this may be why Han doesn’t believe in it when we catch up with him in Episode IV.

SOLO is a fine sci-fi adventure that keeps moving so there is a fair amount of fun, but it was pretty much what I expected. Ron Howard, who took over from Phil Lord and Chris Miller (THE LEGO MOVIE, the 21 JUMP STREET films), assembles all the elements from the crisply coordinated set-pieces to the marks of the colorful ensemble with his well polished style, but I still would love to see what Lord and Miller would’ve done with it.

I was entertained plenty, but I still craved something more. There was nothing that I was surprised by – even a secret cameo in the third act didn’t mean much to me. Aldenreich is good in the title role, but I can’t say I really bought him as being the same character that Harrison Ford made so iconic. That’s probably because I’ve lived with Ford for forty years as the legendary scruffy headed nerfherder. A friend said that Aldenreich doesn’t look like Ford, but he looks like the character. I guess I can go with that, but it’s still hard to not think of Ford.

I can go with Glover’s Lando though – maybe he’s the one who should’ve gotten his own movie.

So SOLO is a predictable package that’s a passable STAR WARS STORY. The way it leaves room for a sequel is also really expected – i.e. there’s no Jabba the Hut and Greedo here so that could be featured in a follow-up that’ll serve as yet another prequel to the first film. It’s obvious that Lucasfilm is planning on filling every gap in the shared universe of these narratives, so that there will be nothing left to the imagination. 


Forget the other franchise of the same name, this is the real NEVERENDING STORY.


* Click to find out why I’ll never refer to the first STAR WARS as A NEW HOPE.


More later…

SOLO: A Passable STAR WARS STORY With No Real Surprises

Opening tonight at every multiplex from here to a galaxy far, far away:

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

(Dir. Ron Howard, 2018) 
Now that we’re starting to get used to the idea of having a new STAR WARS movie every year, here’s the highly anticipated young Han Solo adventure which fills in the intergalactic space smuggler’s back story. 

Fans will finally get to see how Han meet Chewbacca (and give him his nickname, Chewie), how he got his treasured blaster, how he won his beloved ship, the Millenium Falcon, from Lando Calrissian; and how the hell he ran the Kessel Run, first mentioned in the original 1977 film *, in under 12 parsecs.


But the obvious question is: do fans really need to see how these things happened? Maybe they were best left as asides in movies from 40 years ago?

Anyway, Alden Ehrenreich plays the 28-year old Han (we also see how he got his last name, and it’s kind of GODFATHER PART II-ish) who we first meet as a slick street thief in the lawless world of Corellia. Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (a brunette Emilia Clarke, you know, the blonde who loves dragons from Game of Thrones) scheme to escape the drudgery of Imperial shipyard slums, but they get separated after a lightspeeder chase.

Han ends up joining the Empire to become a pilot, but because he’s Han, he gets expelled from the academy, and he meets up with a gruff as usual Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, a criminal scoundrel with a crew who will give Han lessons in how to be a criminal scoundrel. One of the first lessons is, of course, trust no one.

Finnish basketball player Joonas Suotamo takes over from Peter Mayhew for Chewbacca whose first encounter with Han I won’t spoil, Westworld’s Thandie Newton plays Beckett’s lover/crime partner, and most importantly, a smooth as ice Donald Glover steps into Billy Dee Williams’ shoes as the iconic Lando, stealing every scene he’s in.

With respect to not spoiling plot points, I’ll just say that the premise involves a heist (will all the STAR WARS STORIES be heist flicks?) in which Han and crew set about stealing some of the plutonium-like Coaxium (McGuffin!) from mines on the planet Kessel for the slimy yet dapper crime lord Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany), who appears to have Han’s love, Qi’ra, under his command.

All the things you’d expect in a STAR WARS movie are here from tons of blaster fights, scrapes with storm troopers, quipping robots (Lando’s droid, L3-37, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge fulfills that function), gripping space battles with TIE Fighters, etc. Well, everything, that is, except the Force.

For the first time, the Force isn’t part of the story. Nobody has it or speaks of it – I didn’t see any lightsabers – so this may be why Han doesn’t believe in it when we catch up with him in Episode IV.

SOLO is a fine sci-fi adventure that keeps moving so there is a fair amount of fun, but it was pretty much what I expected. Ron Howard, who took over from Phil Lord and Chris Miller (THE LEGO MOVIE, the 21 JUMP STREET films), assembles all the elements from the crisply coordinated set-pieces to the marks of the colorful ensemble with his well polished style, but I still would love to see what Lord and Miller would’ve done with it.

I was entertained plenty, but I still craved something more. There was nothing that I was surprised by – even a secret cameo in the third act didn’t mean much to me. Aldenreich is good in the title role, but I can’t say I really bought him as being the same character that Harrison Ford made so iconic. That’s probably because I’ve lived with Ford for forty years as the legendary scruffy headed nerfherder. A friend said that Aldenreich doesn’t look like Ford, but he looks like the character. I guess I can go with that, but it’s still hard to not think of Ford.

I can go with Glover’s Lando though – maybe he’s the one who should’ve gotten his own movie.

So SOLO is a predictable package that’s a passable STAR WARS STORY. The way it leaves room for a sequel is also really expected – i.e. there’s no Jabba the Hut and Greedo here so that could be featured in a follow-up that’ll serve as yet another prequel to the first film. It’s obvious that Lucasfilm is planning on filling every gap in the shared universe of these narratives, so that there will be nothing left to the imagination. 


Forget the other franchise of the same name, this is the real NEVERENDING STORY.


* Click to find out why I’ll never refer to the first STAR WARS as A NEW HOPE.


More later…

THREE BILLBOARDS Starts Strong But Loses Its Way

Now
playing at an indie art house near me:

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
(Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017)

Such
a juicy premise: a hard as nails Missouri woman rents three billboards alongside
a country road to shame her town’s sheriff who has made no arrests in the wake
of her daughter’s rape and murder.

And such a great cast: Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the mother whose grief has solidified into anger over this injustice, Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby, who doesn’t take kindly to billboards that read “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?,” Samuel Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon, who has a reputation of torturing black suspects; John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage as a local car salesman who has a crush on Mildred.

Add
to that the lush mountain scenery surrounding these characters which has
locations shot in my home state of North Carolina standing in for the fictional town
of Ebbing, Missouri, and you’ve got the elements to make up a tensely funny
thriller, but roughly half way through its nearly two hour running time, the
movie runs out of steam and doesn’t know where to go.

This
happens right after the exit of one major player and the entrance of a suspect
that initially appears to serve as misdirection, but ends up being the
direction the film mistakenly decides to go with.

McDormand’s dour divorcée
Mildred owns the movie’s best moments, but, like with everyone she interacts
with, she never lets us get close to what she’s dealing with enough to really
be on her side. Harrelson’s Willoughby draws more empathy as he’s dying of
cancer and seems to have a good sincere head on his shoulders, but his
character’s fate does the film no favors.


When the film shifts to the underwritten perspective of Rockwell’s Officer Dixon, who we never learn whether he is guilty of racist activity or not, the narrative gets muddled, and a restlessness sets in.
Also, the presence
of McDormand and composer Carter Burwell (who provides a solid yet instinctive score here) made me wish for the more purposeful
(and wittier) approach of the actress and musical director
s long-time collaborators, the Coen brothers.

Writer/Director
McDonagh has had better luck with this sort of black comedy in his previous
films, IN BRUGE and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, which also features Rockwell and Abbie
Cornish who appears here as Harrelson’s wife. Here his screenplay strands its
protagonists and possible antagonists in a pointless parable.

It’s not that every
movie has to have a pat pay-off – many great films end ambiguously – but this particular story
of these broken people who fight for justice that they likely will never get deserves
a better thematic resolution than we get here.


More later…