The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg. 2017.

With Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, Sarah Paulson.
The_Post_(film)

The movie opens with a combat scene during the Vietnam War; soldiers paint their faces to camouflage further their night time raid in the jungle.  They are attacked, instead of being the attackers.  Casualties are high.

While the soldiers have been assembling and cleaning their guns,  one man carries a typewriter: Daniel Ellsberg, a special reporter employed by the State Department writing on the progress of the war.

Ellsberg is summoned to advise the generals what he saw on the front.  It is a political moment: telling the truth sounds like mutiny.  So he hedges.  Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, hedges further, stretching political expediency into something more dangerous, into something that threatens thousands if not millions of lives.

The Post is not about all those human lives lost though.  It is about the power of the press, and one moment during the Nixon administration when the press was challenged and fought back in order to expose what had been happening during the decades of conflict in Vietnam.

There are several heroes in this movie.  First and foremost is Ellsberg, who had the courage to steal confidential files from the Pentagon and expose the government’s falsehoods.

But the most poignant and intimate portrait is of Katherine Graham, a well mannered lady of high degree, someone used to living well, in mansions, treating her friends to birthday parties, her colleagues to retirement speeches.  Graham as the only woman in power at the Washington Post is not often listened to, more commonly disparaged as a woman out of her depth in managing the paper.

But as she is called on to make an essential decision, even though her most trusted advisors suggest the prudent path, she sticks her neck out, decides the opposite, and speaks her mind. Her decision is historically significant.

Streep orchestrates her performance with great subtlety.  Tom Hanks as Benjamin Bradlee does a great impression of the Boston Brahman know it all.

What began as an enlightenment of one woman in the form of Katherine Graham, publisher, actually was informed by many other women who were relegated to lesser positions because of sexism.  Sarah Paulson in her role as Bradlee’s wife explains why Graham’s act was more courageous than Bradlee’s. It is a fine moment in the movie, when without some of the grandstanding and preachiness evoked at other points about the power of the press, a political victory is made.

paulson

Sarah Paulson as Tony Bradlee

 

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A Matter of Life and Death, directed by Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger. 1946.

With David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesy, Raymond Massey.

What is it about David Niven that is so charming? Is it his perfectly shaped mouth, topped by a slightly too thin mustache?  Is it the way he asks questions expecting nothing but the truth for an answer? Is it in this movie, his ability to recite Sir Walter Raleigh’s poetry over a radio while he is in the act of being shot down as a bomber pilot, his dead mates all around him?

David Niven’s character named Peter Carter keeps saying he is 27 years old, even while  his creased brow indicates a man older than that, perhaps in his mid 30s.  No matter.  Peter has the intelligence and wit to convince you that everything he says is absolutely true, including his having fallen in love, only over the airwaves, with an American whose job is to bring bomber pilots in for a safe landing.  When June (Kim Hunter) realizes that she cannot do that, and that her and the bomber pilot’s mission has failed, she weeps quietly at her station, and somehow Peter picks up on that innate sense of decency, and if he hasn’t fallen in love with her before, he certainly has by now.

And so the dilemma begins.  What to do with a bomber pilot whose parachute has failed, and who by extension, must die, when he has suddenly and irretrievably fallen in love, when your job is to reap in the fallen souls who have died,, and belong in … the other place.  We are not talking about heaven or hell, just the sheer statistical gathering place where souls are harvested, and accounts must be squared, and deaths are deaths and lives are lives.  Here officials dressed in white make sure you sign the register book and collect your wings carefully wrapped in cellophane.  What if one of the newly dead  doesn’t land where he belongs?  One like Peter Carter, recently fallen in love, recently bailed out of his airplane, without a parachute, into a very foggy England?

Well, there you have it.  He has landed in a place and a time where lo and behold June, the girl he has been talking on the radio with, is quickly bicycling home to her lodging, where she is friends with a clever doctor named Reeves, who on learning about the strange nearly dead Peter, determines through his diagnosis, that Peter has suffered from a serious injury which requires surgery in order to save him.

Or…does the judge who has come to be in charge of the case of statistical anomolies, need to determine whether Peter has earned a repeal, a new case?  In which case, each side gets to claim a defending advocate to argue whether Peter will live or die.

The movie’s ideas and several quick light handed touches made me laugh. For instance, there is repartee regarding the conflict between the English and the French, and the conflicts between the Americans and the English.  But another great thing about this movie, besides its ability to waltz on air with its many changes in tone, is its casting of Roger Livesey as the doctor/friend to June.  He is perfection.

I am so grateful to live near the Film Forum on this bitterly cold day so that that I got a chance to see it!  It has some magical realism, some sappy romantic bits, and a whole lot of thoughtful plotting about what it means to sacrifice yourself for the one you love.  It requires a bit of leaving your brain at the door, until you need to quickly pick it up again for its marvelous ability to work through whether a law might exist that could prove whether or not someone had truly loved you.   Metaphysical legal cases rarely co-exist in war movies, but here is one, and on top of that, you have a great performance by Roger Livesey as a brilliant doctor.  And all throughout you get to cast your eyes on David Niven in his prime, full of charm, and wit and dashing goodness.

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Lady Bird. Directed by Greta Gerwig. 2017.

With Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein.

Lady_Bird_poster

Time: early 2000s, just after 9/11 around the time of the Iraq war.  Place: Sacramento.  Situation: A young adult woman in her senior year in high school starts to break away from her family.  It begins with her choice of colleges on the east coast.  It continues with her naming herself with a name of her own chosing.  She rejects her religion in her strict Catholic school.  She wants to lose her virginity.  She joins a group of actors in her high school drama club, drops some crucial friends, picks up some dubious others.  Each month that goes by in the chronologically structured plot brings Lady Bird closer to her much desired freedom from her safe neighborhood, her rigid school, and most importantly, her powerful mother.

Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf, rarely breaks a smile.  One can understand why Lady Bird has lost her use for her.  She rarely praises her.  Mostly she chides her for minor infractions like not picking up her clothes, and makes her feel guilty when her father loses his job.  To say that she does not sugar coat the hard knocks of life is an understatement.

metcalf, ronan

Lady Bird lives with her family of modest means surrounded by families with ample means.  She is used to scraping by.  Saiorse Ronan is extremely charming in the leading part.  Her relationship with her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) is convincing, poignant, and brings to the fore all of the nasty business one must wade through to be clear of high school.    Gerwig’s script is witty and smart, and all of the minor characters shine their considerable talents on the leading lady, while acquitting themselves beautifully.  Tracy Letts as the girl’s father as so many other fathers before him, has a tight bond with his daughter that the mother can only imagine.  The conflicts are laid bare but not melodramatically, mostly because of Ronan’s supreme ability to bring subtlety and a natural grace to everything she does.

lady bird and friend

This movie made me laugh, and also brought me to the brink of tears.  I am still thinking of it these many weeks later, as a genuine work of art.

 

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The Florida Project. Directed by Sean Baker. 2017.

With Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Rivera, Bria Vinaite.

florida project poster

With Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Rivera, Bria Vinaite.

Moonee is six or seven years old when we first see her spitting from a high place, landing gobs on a parked car below.  She and her friend Scooty run wild through the purple painted motel in a town near Disney World, Florida.  Their parents are not present except in the manners or lack of them they have learned.

Feral animals, I kept thinking, as they ran along sidewalks, crossed parking lots and highway medians, fearless of being hit by an errant car.  The children walk past one store after another, Disney influence all around them.   Moonie’s mother’s friend who lives downstairs from her works at the waffle house and is willing to give the kids free food if they pick it up out back.

If you live near Disney World you will be influenced by the heightened fantasy that hotel and resort radiate.  Up and down the highway are stores with huge faces of fantastic characters:  Dumbledore, Snow White, Spongebob Squarepants.  So if you are six years old you might think that Santa Claus summers around the corner.

dumbledore

It would be hard to accept the harsh reality you actually live in.  Moonee’s mother, a child herself, has no job or way of making an income.  They live hand to mouth:  pizza for dinner, handouts from Christian charities, ice cream  purchased with change begged from people in line to buy same.

florida ice cream

One day a new family moves in, the one whose car Moonee’s been soiling with her spit.  The grandmother in charge takes offense and insists that Moonee clean up the mess.  Moonee decides to enlist one of the grandchildren to help, a girl called Jancee.  Jancee’s grandmother objects– it was a punishment after all, something for Moonee to learn from.  But the only one learning anything from this movie is the audience.

And here it is:  Disney World is a big fat fraud intended to make us forget or not see how miserable it can be when you’r not educated or skilled, saddled with a small child, when you yourself are a child.  Moonee’s mother comes in for close scrutiny as she struggles to pay the bills and has to resort to some risky business.

How wonderful is the storytelling, though, as we run with the children from scene to scene, in a kind of rhapsodic grace, free of any reality except the innocent point of view of six year olds.

The motel manager, Bobby, is very sympathetic.  He sees everything and empathizes with everyone, even as his business is being  run by a heartless owner.  He protects the children from suspicious strangers.  I believe that Dafoe should win some kind of prize for the dignity with which he acts this part.  

florida project

But the actress playing Moonee, Brooklynn Prince, could not be more perfect, even as she leads more innocent children astray.  Like all feral animals, her task is to survive.    The threat of the law is never far away.  When police finally do show up, they seem like just more ineffective grown ups unable to change the rotten way things are.

 

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Visages Villages. JR/Agnes Varda. 2017.

 

JR and Agnes Varda: one a man in his prime sporting sunglasses which hide his eyes; the other an old woman with a great resume but whose eyes do not see except blurry images because of macular degeneration.  This movie is a collaboration between two slightly subversive filmmakers, both interested in issues of class and powerlessness.  Agnes Varda can speak of the beginning of the new wave in French cinema as someone who was there when it started.  She was married to Jacques Demy, director of the Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  The movie does not explain how she was present during the birth of a movement that had as its intention the casting off of the old wave.  All of her movies have a disdain for conventional thinking.  And so do the works of JR,  whose Portraits of a Generation documented the young people living in the banlieues of Paris, those run down housing projects where riots took place outside of Paris in 2005.  Close up photographs of teens were issued  in massive paper prints and then pasted on the concrete walls of Paris buildings.paris portraits.jpg

How these two artists discover their subjects evolves in their journey through rural France. It becomes a type of road movie where both directors get to photograph portraits of people in small towns who perform blue collar labor.  JR’s team plasters portraits of workers on the sides of buildings in  a state of collapse. The emphasis is on those laborers who are just about disappearing as machines and technology replace them.

A farmer is able to plow and plant and reap over 2000 acres by himself, with the equipment at hand, a computerized machine that does the work of several men.

farmer

Another farmer, a woman tending a herd of  goats, is intent on not pulling or searing off the horns of the goats as other more industrialized farms do to keep the productivity level high.  Political messages like these sprout up  and make it clear how the two filmmakers find a common theme: to keep the common man from being dehumanized by machines and the need to maximize profits.

goat

Another thread running through the movie is Agnes Varda’s mortality, her relationship with many of her friends from her youth, some of  whom have already died.  One of these is Henri Cartier Bresson whose gravestone she locates in a small town, and insists on taking a photo of it.  Most importantly, she wants to re-connect with Jean Luc Godard, with whom she makes an appointment, hoping to introduce JR.  When they arrive at the appointed hour, something other than what she had hoped occurs and that is practically the end of the movie, where much emotion is unleashed, and sadness, but not bitterness.  Agnes Varda is not capable of that, nor of self pity,   She finds whimsy on a sea coast where a lovely young woman is photographed holding an umbrella.  This makes the woman a minor celebrity, even though she resents it because she is by nature shy, but her photograph becomes the subject of a million selfies.

umbrella

Half way through the movie, I thought, it is rare to have a movie allow you time for reflection.  But there are many moments  where you have the opportunity to consider what is happening, what has just happened, and how it makes you feel.

I will miss Agnes Varda when she is gone, but how lucky we are to have her now, with her ruminative sensibility, and her willingness to work with other artists, some of whom are 50 years her junior.

I found particularly moving a portrait of a woman living in a ghost town of a mining community.  This is the place that means the most to her: her husband, her father and brother were all miners.  Now she is the only holdout left to occupy the company housing.  The oversize photograph is put on the facade of her house.  It is magnificent.

miners' daughter

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Ex Libris (Directed by Frederick Wiseman). 2017.

title ex libris

The subject is libraries, NYPL and the title refers to books, but very few books appear in the movie.

The opening scenes show expert patron handlers answering the phone as questions come into the reference desk.  What books are out on my account right now?  Can I put a popular book on hold?  When did the unicorn first appear in print literature?  The indefatigable librarians answer every question with grace and poise and courtesy.  Other customer- librarian contact involve genealogy research and demonstrate the depth of knowledge librarians serve on a regular basis.

But mostly the movie shows the range of programming:

+author conversations

+musical conerts

+poetry readings

+conversations with the head of the Schomburg

+children building robots and learning how to code

And meetings!  So many meetings.  The management, and the executive director, Tony Marx, are filmed at least 10 times discussing internet access, ebooks budget, community planning, private/public funding, how to keep the city adminstration engaged, and the library staff cooperating with the city upon whom half of the budget depends.  Private donors continue to fund the massive group of buildings, teams of librarians, and collections that range from the giant main branch at 42nd St. and the dozens of branches around Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

Other programs that really stood out:

+the picture collection being described and used by art students

+students being tutored

+job seekers being counseled as they are looking for work

+blind readers finding books, and learning how to read Braille

+a book on tape being recorded.

One of my favorite scenes showed how the interlibrary loans get sorted and delivered.  I always wondered about that: it is automated!

ex libris sorting ill

Wiseman’s subject is how institutions work.  As in his movie about Jackson Heights, he never seems to tire of  meetings, of listening to people talk to each other at round tables, every day conversations that are innately uncinematic, but instrumental to our understanding of how things work, the slow pace at which progress is made.

More troubling of a flaw was the lack of identification of the people who were filmed.  Once in a while, you get lucky, and Elvis Costello’s book jacket appears with his name in large letters, and then the unnamed interviewer even speaks his name aloud, but mostly you just absorb the speeches and concerts and librarians without knowing who they are.    I know who Anthony Marx is, but who is Iris?  Is she an architect? The chief operating officer?  Who is the important woman in meetings who gets to speak most, the one with blond hair?

More interesting to Wiseman is the fabric of the streets of the metropolis, the context within which the library must survive: the homeless sleeping on benches, the fire engines bellowing to their assignment, the names of the branches and the neighborhoods they are in.  Many fond shots of the irresistible architecture of the 42nd St. branch appear, and the selfies taken with it as a backdrop.

ex libris

A major focus of NYPL when Wiseman filmed was how to reduce the divide between those who have access to the internet and those left out.  According to the website, “Parents and guardians of NYC public school kids can be eligible for FREE Wi-Fi at home through The New York Public Library’s Library HotSpot program, designed for patrons without home internet.” Another digital concern is how the library allocates funds for ebooks versus physical books.  As technology evolves, so do the library’s programs.  As one person remarked, whoever thought the library was going out of date because of technology did not know what they were talking about.

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Logan Lucky (Directed by Steven Soderbergh). 2017.

logan-lucky-poster

With Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Katherine Waterston, Daniel Craig, and Hilary Swank.

People think that the Logan family carry a curse.  Two brothers are injured, one in the Iraq War, the other in a mining accident, leaving only the sister unscarred and whole.  This set of siblings together with another set, the Bangs, three brothers, all of them seeming exceedingly dim-witted, decide to work together and relieve the North Carolina NASCAR racetrack of its cash.

During the first half hour or so, the audience considers the whole plan unlikely to work.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) has just been laid off as part of a construction crew at the track.  This experience gives him inside information to the inner workings of the business.  Jimmy and his adorable daughter have a close relationship which he protects.  Sadie Logan (Farrah Mackenzie) is preparing to compete in a kiddie pageant in the West Virginia town where they live.

the kid

Jimmy and Sadie Logan (Tatum and Mackenzie)

Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) is a one-handed  bartender. His face rarely changes expression and he takes an inordinate amount of time to respond to everything which gives you the impression that he is not very bright. All the brothers, including the Bangs whose oldest brother Joe (Daniel Craig), serving time in prison, the brains of the outfit, seem pretty slow.   I wonder how the folks who live in West Virginia with a high school education or less and who work in construction or in mining feel about this picture.  There is a certain amount of stereotyping of the working class.

As the plot cooks along, and more things happen, and surprises accumulate in a satisfying way, all of the characters grow on you.

safecracker

Daniel Craig

There is one part of the comedy that I did not like:  Seth Macfarlane’s imitation of a boorish English businessman.  None of what he did in the movie resonated, but I have never cared for Macfarlane’s style. That the brothers would get back at him seems like a very good idea.

The script is very smart.  Directing seems borrowed from the Oceans 11 series.  The acting is a pleasure, especially Daniel Craig, who we know is British, and best known for playing James Bond and here plays a West Virginian with a love of chemistry. But the actors who play the Bang brothers, and Channing Tatum, whose relationship with his brother, his ex wife, his sister, and his daughter are all carefully written and acted, make the movie a pleasure to watch.  The mousetrap of a plot is a bonus.  Here’s hoping for a sequel so that we can see more relationships blossom, such as Hillary Swank’s with Adam Driver, and Katherine Waterston’s with Channing Tatum’s.

Katherine Waterston

Katherine Waterston plays a physician assistant 

 

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