MOVIE REVIEW: Bombshell

Once upon a time… in Arkansas, I grew up wanting to be a journalist. And specifically, a journalist that covered politics. I ran for school government, closely followed every election, was downtown partying in the streets of Little Rock when Governor Bill Clinton was elected President, and even volunteered on a state Senator’s successful campaign. Plans went askew, though, and somewhere after 9/11 the political discourse became too volatile and upsetting for me, so I began to tune out. For the past decade, I’ve only mildly followed the news and my awareness of major scandals was entirely through the lens of social media. So going into this film, I shockingly was ignorant to the story that “Bombshell” tells, but I’m sure glad that is no longer the case.

“Bombshell” isn’t directed by Adam McKay, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. A major reason why is that writer Charles Randolph (who won an Oscar for writing McKay’s best film, “The Big Short”) employs much of the same fourth-wall-breaking dialogue that has become a McKay signature. Director Jay Roach kicks off “Bombshell” with an entire segment of just this – featuring Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) giving us a tour of Fox News and an explanation of how the station operates. It’s an engaging way to introduce the audience to several characters and an important background for understanding the structures of power that exist in this Trump-friendly media empire. Roach shows more restraint than McKay after that, though, and settles into a much more traditionally fluid narrative.

The true story being recounted here is a #MeToo nightmare revolving around a culture of sexual abuse and harassment at Fox News that started at the top with CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) and led to a misogynistic work environment for the women employed there. Female employees were regularly subjected to insults from Ailes, promoted based on their appearance and/or willingness to participate in coerced sexual favors, and expected to show as much leg as possible during broadcasts. Frankly, it is disgusting to watch occur, even in this dramatized manner, and many viewers will likely cringe while relating to the dialogue and power games on display that they may have witnessed themselves. For others, it will hopefully be eye-opening to the behavior women still face in many workplaces across America. Lithgow plays Ailes brilliantly, as the slick-talking untouchable snake of an executive he was. He is creepy and rage-inducing, and it’s easy to cheer for his eventual downfall that is coming.

To bring down Ailes and the toxic culture at Fox, it took many brave women speaking up and risking their careers and reputations. The story in “Bombshell” centers on three of them: two highly-regarded television journalists, Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and Kayla (Margot Robbie), who serves as a composite character to represent the experience new female employees went through when trying to climb the ladder of success at Fox News. Over the course of the film, Carlson’s initial lawsuit looms over Ailes, and we experience the struggle of women trying to fight back against men of power, with Kelly’s backing being critical to Carlson’s cause. As I mentioned earlier, it is not always easy to watch what these women endured. Roach took great care to present as detailed of a view of what it was really like at that time as possible, including troubling scenes showing women who supported Roger Ailes despite his blatant harassment.

Theron is incredible in her role as Kelly, fully transforming her voice and facial structure via the use of several prosthetics. It’s a committed performance and one that carries the film, as she tries to hide the emotional weight of what it costs for her to come out in support of Carlson against Ailes. Kidman and Robbie, though, are also amazing, providing two additional viewpoints from which to understand the damage being done. All three women portray both the vulnerable and strong parts of their characters incredibly well, and I found myself feeling heartbroken and angry for them.

If you enjoy costuming and production design, those are on point, as well. The costumes are more than just for looks as they play a direct role in how women were judged in the Fox culture. The production design is slick and shiny, just as you’d expect a newsroom to be, and the editing is likewise done through efficient cuts that feel akin to a news broadcast. What I’m trying to say is that “Bombshell” is the total package. It is an Oscar-worthy film, led by some of the best performances of the year, with strong technical elements, and it tells a very important story from the right perspective. In the end, what Carlson and Kelly courageously did will hopefully be inspirational to women everywhere, and provide them the strength and encouragement to stand up against harassment in their own lives. As for men watching, well, you either stand against it with them or you’re part of the problem. And for me? I may not ever end up with that dream career in journalism, but I now have two new heroes in the field, and I think that you will too when you see their story.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 203: Marriage Story

It’s time to get real and raw, as this week we chat about Noah Baumbach’s impressive, devastating new feature film. We are strong believers in the emotional impact films can have and this one hits as hard as any in a long time. 

Marriage Story Review – 0:01:09

The Connecting Point – 1:27:37

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MOVIE REVIEW: Marriage Story

When you are with someone in a romantic partnership, it never really comes as a thought about how it will be to lose all of your love and happiness through a painful separation. It would be unorthodox to enter a relationship and not hope for the best, living out those vows to be together through the good and bad. Everybody wants to find that person that they feel completes them and is willing to call them their man/woman through the good and the noticeable flaws that rise to the surface here and there. Sometimes, these promises don’t end up with a fairy tale ending; instead, you feel the agony and suffering of a dream unfulfilled and the symptoms of a broken heart. Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” delves into a marriage breaking apart. It is based on his real experience with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh but also can be a mirror into any point in our lives when we had a failed experience of love lost.

Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are a married couple who live in the bustling metropolis of New York City. Charlie is the owner of a celebrated theater company that gives Nicole a chance to follow her passion for acting, which has been a part of her life since her upbringing in Los Angeles. She had a chance to have a promising career in the City of Angels as a potential leading lady, but she ditched that dream to help Charlie build up his theater company and they ended up having a young son together. Over time Nicole feels that Charlie is not being open to her ideas, happiness, and wishes to go back to LA so she can be close with her family and friends. Charlie feels that with all the time he has dedicated to putting on works that can potentially go to Broadway, and dealing with all of the pressure and prestige that comes with it, he is giving everything he has for his family. Eventually, Nicole feels that the relationship has no more value with her having no autonomy and feeling a low sense of self-worth. She wants to jumpstart the process of a divorce. Charlie is shocked and painfully thinking over a world in which he loses the one person who he thought understood him for who he was, as well as losing the chance to be an able father to his child, due to a custody battle looming that will determine if he has to uproot his life in NY and move to the West Coast away from the home.

Baumbach brings his real-life pain to the screen with an intricate focus on the different dilemmas that arise during the process of divorce. Getting an attorney, custody battles, having to pay out of pocket (which can become expensive and potentially place you in debt or financial ruin), who keeps the apartment or houses, relationships between in-laws becoming fractured, a trial which can be taxing mentally, getting rid of special mementos that remind you of said person, and the feeling of your heart breaking into pieces are all captured here. There is nowhere to hide from seeing the pain on both Charlie and Nicole’s face in most scenes while they try to remain amicable and cordial during a time of emotional heartache. Even with trying to remain friends, Charlie and Nicole are swept into the system of divorce court which only rewards “bad behavior,” pushing them to look for any secrets or dirty ammo that can be used to help secure a resolution that each one wants. It’s a dirty game that spares no expense in leaving you embittered and broken down to the core.

The performances of Driver and Johansson are nothing more than extraordinary. Driver has etched his name right onto the Best Actor statue with a portrayal full that makes audiences feel the pain and anger over his life-changing dilemma. At times, Driver brought me near tears because of how involved his performance was; nothing felt put on for melodrama as you’d expect of a stereotypical scorned ex-husband. He played this role with feelings, sensitivity, masculinity, and fear. This is what a star turn looks like. Johansson gives the best performance of her storied career and it’s not even close, leaving it all on the floor with every line reading, every display of strong drama, and even the humorous yet compassionate little moments that populate this film. The amount of dedication she exudes is a wonder to watch and it’s inevitable that her name will be called on Oscar night along with Driver. They both share natural chemistry that shines during scenes of argumentative chaos; the tears are flowing, insults flying, and they both exhibit goosebumps-inducing body language that is extremely realistic and is amazing to watch. Laura Dern as Nicole’s lawyer has the confidence and charisma to stand out amongst the drama and carve out her own place for award nominations. She gives a strong and snarky supporting performance that may be dwarfed by the efforts of Driver and Johannson but nevertheless makes a mark long after the credits pop up.

Randy Newman’s score is pleasant with its echoes of somber reflection, expressing itself with beautiful piano notes and violins that speak their own language. It supports the dramatic arc of the story without overstaying its welcome or becoming forceful in its magnitude, and is one of the few cases where a score feels like a compliment to the scenes and moods expressed by the characters.

The production design is a treat. Interiors are simply constructed yet feel down-home with their minimalism. Both New York and Los Angeles are treated with idealized versions of the hustle and bustle of city life. You have the cold and wintery streets of New York compared with the sunny and outgoing showmanship of Los Angeles, which also presents a parallel of the divide between Charlie and Nicole. Sublime editing is on display with the array of wonderful quick edits that show themselves during conversations. It gives the film a certain kind of rhythm that makes this story easier to tolerate and deal with the sadness of its message. Costume design is a big plus, too, with honorable mentions going to Driver’s Invisible Man costume and Johansson’s David Bowie, as well as Beatles-influenced wardrobe in some moments toward the end.

“Marriage Story” is a high mark of storytelling that will affect and impact many viewers with its realistic depiction of a marriage turning into a divorce. Intense and compassionate with its own sense of feel-good and hilarious moments to break up the heartache, Baumbach and Netflix have an Oscar darling on their hands.

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Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Report

“The Report” is a mandatory and sobering look into the numerous unlawful violations and devaluing of humanity that occurred in the CIA’s Detention and Intelligence Program during the United States’ post-9/11 “War on Terror.” Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), a Senate staffer, is tasked with the job of investigating the CIA and uncovering their countless injustices, which tests his own emotional fortitude and belief in the hierarchy he occupies. The film offers an inside look into the dirty game of politics and how distrustful our own government has been about being forthcoming with their own citizens.

Scott Z. Burns, who served as both writer and director, holds nothing back in exposing the truth, while also pacing this story in a fluid manner that will command your attention. “The Report” plays out more like a documentary than a feature film thanks to an engrossing sense of realism and the rock-solid acting performances all-around. Adam Driver is having a tour de force of 2019, and this film just adds to his immense hot streak by way of a commanding performance steeped in determined heroism. Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, and Maura Tierney round out an excellent supporting cast and each adds nuance and credibility to the story being expressed on screen.

“The Report” will likely make your blood boil over how the federal government has operated in the name of “protecting our country”, but films like this should be championed for telling the stories that many would rather be kept in the closet.

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Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Irishman

By the end of director Martin Scorsese’s newest crime epic, we are not treated to the eventual comedown of an underworld criminal’s flashy lifestyle; instead we see an old man beaten by Father Time, knocking at the door of impending death, remembering his life while facing past sins and regret of how he let his illicit lifestyle destroy the connection he could have had with his children. “The Irishman” is more than the usual gangster treatment we have gotten in films such as “Goodfellas” or “Casino”. This experience feels more grounded in morality and marks the end of an era for Scorcese, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci.

The film’s narrative spreads across many eras, featuring important figures and the evolution of politics throughout the twentieth century. The transitions between the present day and flashbacks are handled seamlessly, making this three-hour journey a breeze to take in. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker has never been better at her occupation and she should be expecting another golden Oscar trophy to place on her storied mantle. Don’t be afraid by the long runtime, and take an intermission if you must, but “The Irishman” is one of the most compelling times you can have watching a film for 219 minutes.

DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino are all at the pinnacle of their acting brilliance. It’s so hard to pick a standout among the trio, but my choice goes to Pacino who grabs this film in the palm of his hand and doesn’t let up with his penchant for delivering strong emotional bits of dialogue. DeNiro is an old soul with the heart of a lion, hitting all the right marks to bring home how much this one character has seen and done in a lifetime. Pesci plays against type from his usual fire cracking supporting performance, blending into the heart of the film as a quiet but powerful figure. This film should be seen by all the promising actors who want an example of how to be consistent with your profession over a span of decades, as this trio of men have achieved in their legendary careers.

The trademark masterclass direction from Scorsese is also on display. The older he has gotten, the more mature, refined, and improved his approach behind the lens has become.  His consistency is special, and he is one of the only directors I could see continuing to make projects at his age without suffering a quality drop.

The production design prides itself on careful attention to detail; the costumes, music, sets, and depictions of real life figures all feel perfectly lifelike and true to the time period and source material that inspired this story. Everything about this film speaks to the true language of cinema. It is one of 2019’s best and will go down as one of Scorcese’s most accomplished works of his career.

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Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Episode 202: Knives Out

This week we’re joined by film critic Kolby Mac to discuss Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleasing whodunit murder mystery. We compare its signature detective to iconic ones of the past, talk about the use of immigration as a theme, recount our incredibly fun theatrical viewing experiences, and much more.

Knives Out Review – 0:00:58

The Connecting Point – 1:00:48

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Episode 201: The Shawshank Redemption

Our donor pick episode for November, the month we chose to discuss movie friendships, was a perfect choice. We talk rehabilitation, institutionalization, bravery, freedom, and above all, hope. 

The Shawshank Redemption Review – 0:01:53

The Connecting Point – 1:08:59

 

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Episode 200.3: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Wrapping up our 200th episode celebration, we discuss how this film is an origin story for Indiana Jones, and then generally gush while giving all of the reasons why this is our favorite entry in the series.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Review – 0:01:08

The Connecting Point – 1:07:40

 

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Episode 200.2: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Continuing our journey through the greatest adventurer’s film trilogy, we compare the structure of this prequel to the film that came before it, admire a special relationship Indiana forms, and discuss whether or not this is a racially insensitive story.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Review – 0:01:16

The Connecting Point – 0:58:22

 

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MOVIE REVIEW: 1917

Practically every conversation about Sam Mendes’ new WWI epic “1917” is going to include the word gimmick, as it relates to the film’s unique structure. This is because Mendes and all-time great cinematographer Roger Deakins have taken great care to craft a cinematic experience that feels as if the audience is following characters on a journey in one long single shot. Much like “Rope” and “Birdman”, two films that employed a similar trick to great effect, this single-take is merely an illusion. With the exception of one intentional break that makes perfect plot sense, Mendes relies on Deakins and the unreal editing skills of Lee Smith (who is also responsible for the same work on most of Christopher Nolan’s filmography, including “Dunkirk”, which this film is bound to be compared to) in order to bind together a collection of very long takes with brilliant transitions and provide the audience with an immersive experience unlike anything witnessed before. The result of this choice is that viewers may feel almost like they’re in a virtual reality video game, as a silent traveling companion to the film’s main characters. This heightens the viewer’s awareness to the point of always observing surroundings just as the soldiers do. We check the horizon for the enemy, hold our breath during daring escapes, and feel our bodies tighten with anxiety as the intensity picks up and the clock ticks down. So despite the negative connotation that typically is applied to using the word gimmick, this is not the ill-advised attempt at Smell-O-Vision from the 1960’s or the failed D-box technology launched with “Fast and Furious” in 2009. Like the viral marketing of “The Blair Witch Project” or the twelve-year filming cycle of “Boyhood”, this film’s single-take design elevates it to become one of the most captivating films ever made in its genre.

There isn’t a lot to be said about the film’s plot, inspired by stories Mendes’ grandfather shared with him about his time in World War I, as it’s fairly simple and straight-forward. The movie begins with two soldiers, Blake (Richard Madden) and Schofield (George MacKay) being sent on an urgent mission through enemy territory, to deliver a message to the front lines which will stop 1,600 of their fellow soldiers from walking into a German trap. Among these 1,600 men is Blake’s older brother, giving him a very personal drive to succeed. Suffice to say – the stakes are high. Their journey plays out much like that of Sam and Frodo in “The Lord of the Rings”, though at a much-heightened pace. Along the way, they face obstacles that must be overcome (both from enemies and the environment), strangers they must rely on for help, and difficult moral choices that must be made while traversing the flawless sets of production designer Dennis Gassner. Both Madden and MacKay offer emotionally compelling and difficult physical performances that are not over-dramatic but capture the internalized pain and fear of their situation in a very moving way. Not to be forgotten is also a tremendous supporting cast featuring brief, never distracting, and impactful interactions for the main pairing with acting giants such as Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

At a tight 110 minutes long, Mendes keeps the tension high throughout despite only a couple of big war scenes the likes of which you’d usually expect to see. The epic nature of “1917” is not in the scale of its recreated battles, but in the enormity of the task at hand and the way in which the film looks at World War I (and by proxy all war-fighting, really) from the ground-level view of those who fight, cry, and die in the trenches. That being said, due to the incredible sound editing, when there are bullets flying on screen it feels like they’re buzzing through the air right in your theater – to the point that some viewers will slink in their seats or even jump unexpectedly. Another element that contributes so greatly to this immersion is Thomas Newman’s magnificent score. In lieu of constant dialogue and grand speeches, his work provides the emotional context we need and aids our characters’ body language in ensuring we are astutely aware of their mindset at any given moment. In a career of tremendous work, this could be his best, and like Deakins, he could easily be hearing his name called on Oscars Sunday.

“1917” is an astonishing exercise in immersion that will leave you utterly shaken. It is a true technical marvel, with emotional power that creeps up slowly, and then forces the viewer to reconcile with the futility of war in a manner that lingers long after the credits roll. The film is stunning on every level, a tour-de-force in the genre, and an absolute must-see theatrical experience.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.