Gone Girl

Hostiles

Versatility. Range. To me, these are the hallmarks of great acting – and they have served Christian Bale (The Big Short) well, from The Fighter to American Hustle. Hostiles marks his return to the Western, his first since 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma. One would hope that the genre has evolved enough to be devoid of stereotypes, while maintaining historical accuracy in a way that doesn’t sacrifice artistic merit. Hostiles didn’t break new ground within the genre, but emotional dramatic turns from Bale and co-star Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) make it a worthwhile film.

Set in 1892, the film depicts a rough and tumble American landscape of centuries past. Bale stars as Joseph Blocker, an Army captain tasked with a final mission before retirement, which he begrudgingly accepts. He must transport a dying Apache chief and his family back to their home state of Montana, as the elder is riddled with Cancer and has been granted mercy to die on his homeland. Violent and racist, Blocker’s visceral contempt for Native Americans could not be more obvious, and he pleads in futility to be excused from the mission. His superior officer ignores those complaints, and Blocker leads a small party of soldiers in the transport of Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, A Million Ways to Die in the West) and his family, including his adult children and grandson.

Historical accuracy is important, and while it is true that some early Native Americans terrorized White settlers expanding West, it is equally true that White colonizers terrorized the indigenous populations already here. Be that as it may, the film did an effective job in its first act, presenting both sides of a philosophical coin in its depiction of brutality. In a riveting opening scene, a Comanche tribe descends upon a family to steal their horses. They slaughtered them all, save for Pike’s character Rosalie, now a grieving mother and widow. Blocker and company encounter the woman en route, and she joins their small, weary procession.

Hostiles is quite simply a movie about a journey from point A to point B. The strength of the film is in the richness and depth of the characters and the performances. The Captain is a figure whom you can’t quite root for or against. Initially Blocker is cruel, failing to see the humanity in his charge. However, in moments with the soldiers under his command and in his interaction with Rosalie, we see genuine affection and tenderness, a reminder of the complexity of human nature and the duality that lies within all of us. He is an effective leader, engendering loyalty that is met with a deep and loving gratitude. As they encounter peril in their journey, circumstances force Blocker to amend his dealings with Yellow Hawk and to forge a new, albeit begrudging respect as they face a common enemy together.

An air of sadness hangs over the film, giving it a somber tone throughout. I was moved by its theme of reflection, as several characters bleakly assessed their own careers and lives, burdened by the weight of loss. I was particularly struck by a poignant scene between two lieutenants, as the younger (Jesse Plemons, The Post) reflects on his first killing. The contrast between the two men was powerful, the older immune to regret over certain lives but not others. This emotional compartmentalization exemplified the cynicism of war and of life generally, and it was portrayed beautifully.

My critique of the film boils down to a matter of taste, of whether or not one can get past the limitations of the genre and the fact that it isn’t a “feel good” movie.  Hostiles was a fine film, featuring another excellent performance by Christian Bale, and a rich emotional turn from Rosamund Pike, which may be enough for some moviegoers.

Grade: B+

The Post

In today’s climate, fake news and misinformation abound. Now more than ever, we should be able to rely on the press to disseminate truthful information. The Post hearkens back to a time in American history when the public still had trust in the fourth estate, and news publications prided themselves as gatekeepers: the last line of defense between the average citizen and a (potentially) corrupt government.

The Watergate scandal has been well-documented, but some may be unaware of the precursor to that tumultuous time, when public trust in our nation’s highest office previously began to be eroded. Incomparable director Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies) brings us The Post, an account of The Washington Post’s controversial publishing of The Pentagon Papers in 1971. Initially the classified information was brought to light by The New York Times, but The Post published a lengthier excerpt shortly thereafter. Specifically, The Pentagon Papers were a detailed report written by the Department of Defense revealing that the U.S. was essentially involved in a war that it knew it could not win. At least four administrations, including Kennedy and Johnson – had not been truthful about the Vietnam War with the American public – while still sending our young people off to die in a foreign jungle.

Tom Hanks (Sully) stars as editor Ben Bradlee, while his boss is owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, Ricki and the Flash), whose father owned the paper before her. In a sign of the times, her father willed the paper to his son-in-law and Kay’s husband rather than to his own daughter. This apparent invisibility in male-dominated spaces would require Kay to assert herself in courageous ways, and the film’s subtle depiction of Graham’s timidity in that sphere was spot-on. The strength of The Post is two-fold: Spielberg masterfully impresses upon us the weight of the classified information, and lends an equally deft hand to the agonizing dilemma with which Graham is faced: to publish or not to publish?

It was interesting to see an iconic newspaper such as The Washington Post depicted as a fledgling underdog but remember this was before Woodward & Bernstein. Hanks and Streep were effective, with the former showing the dogged tenacity of a grizzled vet and Streep delivering a quietly brilliant performance. Some Hollywood names are all hype, but Streep is as good as advertised. Kay Graham could’ve been imprisoned for publishing The Pentagon Papers, but she did so anyway, in bold defiance of the male members of the Board of Directors, blazing a new trail for the paper and positioning it as a bastion of truth through diligent investigative reporting.

The Post was deliberate, sharp and compelling. Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep elevated the film by virtue of their presence/involvement alone, which was enough of a draw for me. The accolades are well-deserved. I also enjoyed the limited screen time and supporting performances from Carrie Coon (Gone Girl) and Matthew Rhys (Burnt). My only criticism of the film is less of a ‘ding’ and more of an observation. It’s an important film but it’s not an exciting movie, and for that reason I recommend this movie to those who are fans of Hanks and Streep and to those who try to check out the Oscar contenders every year. I enjoyed The Post and hope it’s indicative of the films to come in 2018.

Grade: A-

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Ever since Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) was announced as the next iteration of the Caped Crusader, movie buffs and fan boys alike have been waiting with baited breath to behold this epic clash of titans in Batman v. Superman. Most fans have maligned Affleck’s selection, but I reserved judgment. Affleck’s career experienced a brief downturn during the J-Lo era, but I thought he rebounded nicely as early as 2006 with Hollywoodland. I like Ben Affleck and if anyone tells you he’s what’s wrong with this film – they are mistaken.

I looked forward to this, cautiously optimistic about what director Zac Snyder (300, Sucker Punch) would do with the franchise after taking the helm over from Christopher and Jon Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises). Batman v. Superman begins with the familiar exposition of the murder of Bruce’s parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. We then move forward to the recent past, and the inception of Batman and Superman’s mutual disdain. When one of Superman’s epic battles leaves an avalanche of destruction in its wake, including the decimation of one of Wayne Enterprises’ properties, Bruce is furious. Meanwhile, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, The Man From UNCLE) is none too fond of Batman, bristling at the cavalier vigilante who has won Gotham’s heart by taking the law into his own hands. To be clear, Batman doesn’t trust an alien with god-like abilities; conversely Superman thinks the billionaire is reckless and should be contained.

The stage is set for battle, after a young Lex Luthor (played by a terribly miscast Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) pits the two against one another. Luthor and LexCorp have weaponized kryptonite, in the event that Superman ever needs to be neutralized. After Congress denies his request for government approval, he moves forward with another plan, hoping that the two heroes will take each other out. The plot was a little thin, and I was never emotionally invested in any outcome for either hero. When Batman and Superman finally square off, it is laughably apparent just how overmatched Batman (a mere mortal) is when facing a real superhero with powers beyond a utility belt. Only with the tried and true trick of kryptonite can he keep pace with Superman. Affleck clearly bulked up for the part, which makes sense – but why was he a slow, lumbering oaf with little agility and quickness? It looked as if even the likes of Daredevil could handily dispatch Batman.

I thought the movie was just ok. It wasn’t as horrible as the blogosphere is making it out to be, but it was rather underwhelming, plagued by poor casting and an underdeveloped, nonsensical plot. Eisenberg was miscast as Luthor. Instead of a criminal mastermind, Lex Luthor seemed like a bratty, petulant teen – hardly a worthy foe to a much more mature Batman or Superman. Batman seemed slow, and the fight sequence wasn’t as jaw dropping as I expected. One scene involves Superman 1) retrieving some kryptonite and 2) using it to kill something; how is this even possible?! There were some cool, entertaining moments, but they were few and far between. Moreover, I don’t really like the way Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Triple 9) was incorporated. The character wasn’t properly integrated in the storyline. Perhaps she was supposed to be mysterious, but I never felt like I understood her motivations or history.

Lastly, I just can’t get the Nolan’s interpretation of Batman out of my head. It was just a superior trilogy, and I don’t particularly care for what Snyder has done thus far. I’m still curious to see what Ben Affleck can do in the role, whenever he gets a solo Batman film. I thought he looked the part, but I would like to see more in the future. Superman is just a boring character to me, and Henry Cavill didn’t do much to change that opinion. Superman has all the power and none of the personality, easily distracted like a simp when Lois Lane (Amy Adams, American Hustle) is in danger. Corny! The cinematic edge still goes to Marvel, and all this movie did was make me anticipate Captain America: Civil War even more. Grade: C