Tag Archives: Tracy Letts

“The Post”

LOUISA:  3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

What does it say about us as a society that “The Post,” director Steven Spielberg‘s insightful and intense historical retelling of the Nixon White House’s attempt to silence the press, is sadly topical today? The 1970s period piece is astonishingly timely in the era of Trump, making it not only a relevant drama but also a type of psychological horror about censorship and the First Amendment.

The film depicts the true story of the unthinkable legal battle between The New York Times and the United States government after the paper reported on a massive cover-up of secrets about the Vietnam War from a study commissioned by Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). The New York Times was subsequently banned from publishing the classified material (which was stolen by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) and sent to Times reporter Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain)).

After some expert investigative reporting, journalists at The Washington Post got their hands on these top secret documents (which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers), and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) made the gutsy decision to publish them. The entire news team fearlessly risked the future of the newspaper and braved threats of going to jail in a bold fight for the freedom of the press, rocketing The Post to its current status as a relevant powerhouse of significant reporting.

This is precisely the kind of story Spielberg excels at telling, a big, historical drama that’s handsomely directed and sharply written with an ensemble cast who dive straight into the deep end of in the Oscar pool. Streep and Hanks lend an effortless credibility to two colleagues whose relationship is one that’s built on cold banter with an ever-so-slight sprinkling of mutual respect. Rhys, Greenwood, and Tracy Letts (as Fritz Beebe) are equally strong. Often the trouble with such a large cast of pedigreed talent is that performances tend to get lost, meaning actors have to work twice as hard to stand out. Surprisingly, the actor who rises to the top is Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk runs the gamut of range and is outstanding.

It’s nice to see that Spielberg hasn’t lost his flair for directing either. He lights many scenes with cool grays and blues, an effective contrast to his signature sweeping, fluid camera movements that accurately capture the stress and excitement of a buzzing newsroom. I appreciate that this isn’t a dumbed-down film; a working knowledge of history is required. In chasing his desire to make yet another ‘Movie That Matters,’ Spielberg plays it a little too safe with predictability, particularly in the scenes that focus on the business side of a dying newspaper versus the straight history of the event (causing the story to feel like two different movies in one).

How frightening to think of the myriad parallels to the Trump administration attempting to exert its own control over the media, selling the public ludicrous lies at press conferences and through Twitter, while their hands are constantly poking and prodding in the pie of honest journalists the world over. Our own president has gone so far as to call reporters the “enemy of the American people,” something that is chilling when you examine the present day parallels to Nixon that are depicted here.

This is the kind of film that red states hate, one that’s filled with historically accurate scenarios that’ll surely make them scream liberal elitism. Spielberg’s utter detest of Trump intermittently becomes a little too obvious, especially in his heavy-handed direction towards the end, but this is an important story that deserves and needs to be told in this distressing time of “fake news.”

“The Post” expresses the intoxicating euphoria of speaking the truth and having the courage to expose the lie, even if you’re on the losing side of a Goliath. The film’s message is more important now than ever, and I hope we won’t see history like this repeat itself.

“Lady Bird”

LOUISA: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Garden variety coming of age films are so prevalent that it’s all the more refreshing when something truly personal and original like “Lady Bird” comes along. The small scale intimacy of the story about a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood in Sacramento feels raw and real, its cozy focus creating a universal anecdote that relives (with bittersweet affection) a part of life that’s filled with constantly fluctuating highs and lows. This is exactly the type of indie filmmaking that we need more of, and the awkwardly charming Greta Gerwig has hit a home run with her equally awkwardly charming directorial debut.

The film gives an unromantic glimpse into middle class life in 2002, where we meet Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), her recently laid off and depressed dad (Tracy Letts), and her hardworking, steadfast mom (Laurie Metcalf). The film is perfectly cast, with Ronan and Metcalf being the real standouts (the two are at their best when pushed into blow-up clashes between mother and daughter, an emotional tug of war between a teen impatient to break away from a hometown that’s beneath her and a mother so desperately hanging on that she’s unable to express her love and disappointment). It’s apparent the actors felt emotionally connected to the material while on set, and their performances bring a biting honesty and empathy to the family dynamics of Gerwig’s screenplay.

Gerwig has said the film is semi-autobiographical and she writes with an authentic voice, taking great care with her story (a story told with the hindsight of being a grown up). She brings a confident wisdom, an earnest insight, and a fresh voice through a witty and bright script that mirrors her true-to-life, free spirited personality. It’s as if the film exists within its own glowing aura. With Gerwig at the helm, the film has a particular hipster quirkiness written all over it, yet its sunny disposition and sharp humor is abundant with sincerity and avoids falling into the trap of being overly cynical or jaded.

The film is so observant that I could totally and wholly relate to our adolescent heroine through a realism that instantly transported me to the past. While I grew up in a different decade, some of the situations seemed like actual pages ripped out of my own high school experience. There are plenty of moments in a teenage girl’s life where the trivial becomes momentous and the momentous becomes devastating, and they are presented here with a poignant and compassionate vibrancy that I’ve rarely seen so accurately captured on film.

“The Lovers”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“The Lovers” is a film that tries so hard to convince audiences that it’s a funny, honest and refreshing look at modern infidelity and a crumbling marriage, but it’s just another “been there, done that” exploration of a tiresome theme. This uncomfortable indie is tedious, boring, and feels as if it goes on for twelve hours.

The fantastic Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play Mary and Michael, a long-married couple who have all but completely fallen out of love. They both suffer through monotonous cubicle office jobs and come home to a lackluster marriage. Each is having an affair with a clingy, needy, eccentric artist; her a writer (Aidan Gillen), him a ballet dancer (Melora Walters). These two can’t stand to be married to each other but once they begin “cheating” on their unpleasant side partners with each other, it turns out they get along great as lovers.

The premise of the story is a good one, but the only interesting elements of the movie is its ending which, by the time it rolls around, is far too late. The trouble starts at the core with the main characters. These are incredibly unlikable, dull people that you won’t care about — which makes for a ridiculously dull movie.

The film has a sluggish mumblecore quality that makes it even more unappealing, with long stretches of awkward pauses, staredowns, scenes of text messages, and unexplained bouts of crying. It starts off okay, but hardly anything happens from scene to scene. And there it sits. And sits. Aaaaand sits.

It’s exhausting.

At the midpoint, Mary and Michael’s son (Tyler Ross) comes home from college for the weekend with his new girlfriend (Jessica Sula) and thankfully breathes a little life into the story. There’s a lot of pain simmering beneath the surface during the visit, and it’s by far the best part of the movie. Unfortunately, it can’t save this tiring film.

I think this entire project would’ve worked much better as a short instead of a feature length movie. I guarantee a movie like this will be hailed as a masterpiece by critics, but they’re just taking the bait. I’ve seen (and loved) plenty of similar movies, but this one is a boring chore to sit through. This is the kind of indie movie that makes normal audiences think they hate indie movies.

“Christine”

LOUISA:  3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Christine” dramatizes the tragic true story of Florida television news reporter Christine Chubbuck, a young woman who, in the summer of 1974, pulled out a gun and shot herself in the head live on the air. While the biopic is based on this grisly and horrific event, it never feels too exploitative towards its subject and instead offers a glimpse into the personal life of a seriously damaged and depressed human being.

Rebecca Hall has been almost universally lauded for her lead performance, and rightfully so. She is perfectly cast as Chubbuck, portraying her with an insecure, off-putting and confrontational style. She is completely believable as an overly ambitious yet troubled and insecure young woman living with untreated depression, a condition that’s accurately reflected in her awkward, slouched stance and sudden temper tantrums directed at her child-like mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), perfectly coiffed anchorman crush George (Michael C. Hall), and boss Michael (played by the phenomenal Tracy Letts, who also gave another one of the most memorable performances of the year in “Indignation“).

Letts and Hall play perfectly off each other, and the very best scenes in the film are when the two argue over his insistence on more sensational, bloody, and juicy stories in an attempt to bring in higher ratings. There’s only one tearful scene where Hall succumbs to some over-the-top overacting, but she manages to maintain a steady pace throughout most of the film — not an easy feat when the most effective aspects of this nuanced performance are the things that are left unsaid.

Antonio Campos directs with a sharp, focused style that’s packed with retro visuals and an impeccable attention to period detail. The film looks like it was shot in the 1970s, with cinematographer Joe Anderson lending a handsome look through soft, muted lighting and a straightforward color palate of orange, gold and brown. The look of the film accurately reflects the uneasy feeling of the film; you can sense the overwhelming angst, dread, and despair, and this movie is designed to make the viewer feel uncomfortably distressed. Unfortunately, the disappointing script (written by Craig Shilowich) clashes with the direction, and the film suffers from mediocre, uninspired writing. So much more could’ve been done with the story, and the film could’ve been great if only it had a better screenplay.

The brilliantly framed and directed final sequence of “Christine” is a real scene stealer, and one that reminds audiences that they just actively participated as a willing voyeur by watching a version of a true horror movie. There’s so much tension in the final 3 minutes that my pulse was racing, I instantly felt queasy, and I broke out in a sweat. With the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme song making a prominent appearance, it’s the perfect commentary on not only the sexist newsroom culture of yesteryear, but the “if it bleeds, it leads” media culture of today.


Matt was unavailable for review.

“Indignation”

LOUISA:  3.5 STARS   MATT: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Philip Roth’s deeply personal novel “Indignation” gets the big screen treatment in this elegantly photographed, beautifully acted and richly directed film. This complex, coming-of-age character study explores weighty themes of morality, spirituality, sexuality and authority at a conservative Christian college in the 1950s.

Studious Jewish boy Marcus (the fantastically talented Logan Lerman) longs to flee his working class New Jersey home — and avoid the Korean war — by enrolling in college in Ohio. Dad Max (Danny Burstein) is a butcher and mom Esther (Linda Emond) runs the household. Marcus’ parents struggle with him leaving the nest (and possibly his Jewish cultural identity), especially his father. As expected, Marcus thrives in the university environment as far as classes go, but he encounters some big problems with the school’s religious policies. Marcus soon becomes infatuated with the lovely and polished (and seriously damaged) classmate Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a disturbed young woman who has spent time in a mental institution for alcohol addiction and a suicide attempt.

There are numerous deep themes that are explored here, and it’s truly a film based on sophisticated ideas not mindless drivel. Instead of big CGI monsters or over the top explosions, we get a wordy, talky, think piece that riffs on love, death and bad decisions, an exploration of how every step we take propels our lives into a certain trajectory that may or may not be filled with happiness, tragedy or pain.

“Indignation” is a thinking person’s movie. Many of the glimpses we get into the lives of these characters are nothing more than mere flashes that only scratch the surface of their wounded psyches. (As with most literary adaptations, there’s a lot of information presented and the film at times feels crowded). Marcus’ mother longs to divorce her mentally abusive husband who is slowly losing his mind, Marcus’ roommates Flusser (Ben Rosenfield) and Foxman (Philip Ettinger) each have some unspoken societal struggles, and something is deeply troubling about Olivia’s relationship with her own father. Nothing is spelled out for viewers; those who pay attention will be rewarded. How refreshing it is to see a smart movie made for smart audiences.

My major criticism of the movie is that at times it feels a little too much like a stage play, which in turn makes it tedious in parts. At other times the stagy feel actually works to make the film better. Case in point: the most compelling portion of the film is a quietly ferocious extended scene of Marcus and Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) going head to head in a believer vs. atheist intellectual power struggle. This is the most intense part of the movie and it’s also the best. I was completely and utterly engrossed and found myself sitting forward in my seat.

Moviegoers need to encourage Hollywood to make more movies like this one, so please vote with your wallet and go see it. Your brain will thank you.

MATT SAYS:

In the 1990s, there was a trend in movies and television that featured would-be philosophers with an expansive vocabulary who practiced the art of verbal sparring. At the time, I found the trend annoying. Particularly vexing was the fad of precocious children and teens who apparently saw themselves as the reincarnation of Immanuel Kant and used a lexicon that was completely inauthentic to the time and the person. Examples were everywhere, from movies like “Reality Bites” and “Clerks” to television shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and, at times, even “Beavis and Butthead.”

And then the 2000s happened.

At some point after the close of the millennium, there was a noticeable shift in pop culture away from these amateur Aristotles and towards our society’s apparently endless fascination with watching celebrities, competition shows, and disastrous personalities destroy themselves in front of our eyes. Our societal journey towards the future predicted by “Idiocracy” has sped up to a breakneck pace, and if the success of the Trump campaign is any indication, the brake lines have been severed. In the midst of this, I’ve actually found myself nostalgic for the movies of the 90s.

To keep the analogy going, “Indignation” is like an emergency off-ramp on the highway to cultural idiocy. It’s about a teenager from New Jersey who leaves home for a small college in Ohio. While he’s away at school, young Marcus (Logan Lerman) finds himself in the midst of a series of new trials that have nothing to do with his academics: his roommates are loud, insensitive guys who don’t really care about Marcus but have no respect for his privacy; the Dean of Students (Tracy Letts) won’t respect Marcus’s wish to focus on his studies to the exclusion of a social life; an avowed atheist and cultural Jew, he is nevertheless required to attend Catholic services at the school once a week; and the girl he is dating (Sarah Gadon) is moving too fast for his comfort.

The story is familiar to anyone who traveled far away from home to start their life as an adult. While we may not all be cut from the same cloth as Marcus, he’s a sympathetic character who it’s impossible not to respect. He is highly intelligent and respects logic above all, and it’s when those around him don’t share his worldview that things become difficult. Marcus may not have his peers figured out, but he knows exactly who he is. So when Dean Caudwell begins challenging Marcus and his values, they lead to some epic verbal battles where the two butt heads.

And it’s in these verbal sparring matches that “Indignation” really shines. The two scenes featuring Caudwell and Marcus are easily two of the best scenes on film this year. These encounters are much more exciting than any scene from any action movie of 2016; I was much more invested in these confrontations than any civil war between Iron Man and Captain America. Why have we (apparently) collectively forgotten the thrill of a good debate? Why don’t we value the matching of wits over physical strength and athletic prowess? When did the rivalry of Holmes and Moriarty become less interesting to us than Jason Bourne versus some secret agent guy?

I loved “Indignation” for what it is, and what it’s not. It’s a potent reminder of how we can be entertained without explosions or superpowers.