Tag Archives: B+

HAPPY END

Producer: Margaret Menegoz, Stefan Arnt, Veit Heidusck and Michael Katz
Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Jan-Louis Trintingnant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Frank Rogowski, Laura Verlinden, Aurelia Petit, Toby Jones, Hille Perl, Hassam Ghancy, Nibiha Akkari, Loubna Abidar and Joud Geistlich
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B+

After flirting with tenderness in “Amour,” Michael Haneke returns to his far more caustic view of humanity with the ironically-titled “Happy End,” which is suffused with intimations of death and casual cruelty. Once again he trains his practiced eye on the sinister undercurrents swirling beneath the façade of bourgeois normality, this time focusing on the Lambert family, a wealthy and privileged clan living in Calais, where they run a construction company.

Despite the firm leadership of the widowed Anne (Isabelle Huppert), however, the firm is in financial peril, and her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is a softie who shows little aptitude to take charge, exhibiting a desperate sense of rectitude that is incongruous not only in terms of his family’s sterner stuff, but of his own weakness. When a wall of one of the buildings they have under construction collapses, killing a worker, what an official investigation of the accident might reveal puts even greater pressure on the bottom line. That’s why Anne has developed a romantic relationship with Lawrence (Toby Jones), a British banker who can help her arrange a much-needed loan. The specifics of the agreement, however, will include a betrayal of Pierre’s prospects to take over management of the company.

Meanwhile Anna’s brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) has to deal with a domestic tragedy, an apparent suicide attempt by his ex-wife, who has fallen into a coma as a result. That means that he and his second wife Anaïs must take in, at least temporarily, his thirteen-year old daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin). Thomas, a surgeon, lives an ostensibly happy life with Anaïs and their infant son, but he is nevertheless carrying on a torrid online affair. And Eve, a pretty, outwardly innocent young thing, is burdened by secrets from her life with her mother, and like so many children of today, is given to uses of technology that have decidedly grim intent.

There is one other member of the family—Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the elderly father of Anne and Thomas, whose mind is failing. Tired of life, he is desperately searching for a way out, and after failing to kill himself, proves willing to enlist others in arranging his death—including, as it turns out, the most unlikely member of the family.

Haneke lays out these varied plot threads in a mosaic that requires the viewer to piece the elements together and sometimes simply intuit the connections. He begins with cell-phone footage taken by Eve, includes reams of computer-screen conversation between Thomas and his unseen lover, shows the collapse of the building walls in what appears to be video footage documenting construction, and concludes with another cell-phone sequence being documented by young Eve. He folds these various kinds of sources into more conventional narrative sequences that carry the domestic story along.

He also observes the Laurents’ interaction with their Moroccan servants Rachid and Jamila (Hassam Ghancy and Nabiha Akkari), who are once described by one family member—not too exaggeratedly—as slaves (and whose daughter Thomas treats cavalierly after she’s bitten by the family dog). And the location of the story in Calais inevitably touches on the plight of the undocumented immigrants who congregate there in hopes of securing transport to Britain.

These are, however, essentially digressions designed to suggest how the poison running through the family’s intimate relationships ripples out into the wider society—as does a subplot involving compensation to the family of the worker killed in the construction accident (introduced, as often in Haneke, in a teasingly oblique fashion whose import is revealed much later).

The cast is well-nigh flawless. The two stars, who have worked with Haneke before, are entirely in synch with his creative (and, it seems, temperamental) wavelength: the amazing Huppert, who was so remarkable in “The Piano Teacher,” delivers a stunning performance as a woman of implacable strength and cunning, while octogenarian Trintignant, so affecting in “Amour,” offers extraordinary nuance as a man who simply does not want to contend with the increasing frailty of his mind—and is willing, perhaps not without selfish intent, to reveal a dark secret about his own past in an ostensibly good cause. The remainder of the cast is strong, with Jones bringing surprising sympathy to a man who either doesn’t realize that he’s being used or simply doesn’t care. The most formidable among them, however, is young Harduin, whose Eve serves as proof of Haneke’s point—as children did in “The White Ribbon”—that the corruption of one generation is inevitably instilled in the next. On the technical side, Christian Berger’s cinematography is expert, while editor Monika Willi deserves special applause for the careful layout of the narrative’s many strands.

“Happy End” closes with a sequence that is at once deeply unsettling and mordantly funny. It serves as a fitting conclusion to a film in which Haneke again looks uncompromisingly on the dark reality of how human beings live, and how their inhumane tendencies will be passed on to their children in ways that might shock even them.

THE POST

Producer: Amy Pascal, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Steven Spielberg
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
Stars: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jesse Plemons, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, Stark Sands and Neal Huff
Studio: 20th Century Fox

B+

At once a gripping fact-based period newspaper drama and a timely tale of female empowerment in a male-dominated world, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” issues a message relevant to an age when untruths pour from the Oval Office, journalists are summarily attacked as fakes and phonies, and women have begun to speak openly about their mistreatment at the hands of arrogant, powerful men. Some will dismiss it as liberal pleading, and even some who agree with the points it’s making may feel that it’s too on-the-nose. Though about events that unfolded nearly half a century ago, however, it delivers a warning about governmental mendacity and threats to a free press that resonates today perhaps as much as ever, and under Steven Spielberg’s expert hands it tells its story with precision, dramatic impact and a predictable level of sheer cinematic skill.

The film can be seen as a prequel of sorts to “All the President’s Men,” ending with the Watergate burglary that began Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film. Its subject is the publication of the infamous Pentagon Papers, the massive study of the Vietnam War that proved that the government had been systematically deceiving the American people about the conflict. Its emphasis is on the Washington Post’s role in the 1971 episode, in which the Nixon Administration attempted to suppress the release of that classified document, which had been surreptitiously copied from the files of the Rand Corporation by researcher Daniel Ellsberg, who provided it to the press.

To set the stage, the film begins with Ellsberg’s work in Vietnam, where, as played by Matthew Rhys, he was documenting how poorly the war was going—an assessment he finds is shared by President Johnson’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who commissioned the report. McNamara’s public statements that the war was going well disturbed Ellsberg, and the continuance of those false assurances into the Nixon years encouraged him to take the document to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.

It is in fact the Times that publishes the first installment of the Papers, a scoop that aggressive Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) watches enviously. When the Nixon Administration files suit against the Times and its editor Abe Rosenthal (Michael Stuhlbarg) to compel it to cease publication, Bradlee, through his reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who knows Ellsberg and sees his hand in the release, works to get his hands on the document.

Much of the enjoyment to be had from “The Post” lies in the nuts-and-bolts of the paper’s acquisition of the papers and the staff’s rushed efforts to get the material in the pages into publishable form. Hanks and Odenkirk, along with a superb ensemble of actors and actresses playing the newsroom staff, have great fun with these scenes even if Hanks can’t match the grouchy authority Jason Roberts brought to Bradlee in Pakula’s film.

But that story is made more complex by the addition of a second thread centered on Post publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), who was thrust unwillingly into her position by the suicide of her husband and faced with a decision as to whether to continue the publication of the material and invite the administration’s wrath. A party-giving socialite who hobnobbed with the Washington elite—including McNamara, whom she considered a friend—Graham was part of a journalistic establishment that largely cooperated with the government. (So, in fact, was Bradlee, who had been cozy with JFK.) In the summer of 1971, moreover, she was involved in an effort to take the Post public in an IPO whose value could be damaged by a legal action against the paper. And, of course, she was a woman, and so considered by her all-male counselors (played by stalwarts such as Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford) as not really the right person to be making decisions on such a potentially catastrophic matter.

Spielberg’s picture is thus not just a crackerjack newspaper tale about getting the story and putting it out. It’s also about the change that occurred in American journalism during the 1970s, when the friendliness between publishers and editors on the one hand and governmental power players on the other became adversarial as investigative reporting took center stage. And it’s about how a woman became head of a major news organization and, despite protests from many of the men around her, took a stand that ultimately became a bedrock of press freedom from government control.

Streep manages all the layers of complexity in Graham’s character with the consummate degree of nuance audiences have come to expect of her. She captures the woman’s insecurity, her timorousness in the face of her board’s blustering, her growing unease with her party-going friends (including McNamara, whose manner Greenwood captures without turning him into caricature—it’s notable that he once also played JFK, the man who brought McNamara to Washington), and her ultimate steeliness in the face of warnings from her advisors (including Jesse Plemons as the paper’s nervous lawyer) that a decision to publish could be ruinous. Streep’s scenes with Hanks are especially enjoyable, as the two debate how to proceed with an increasing measure of mutual respect and affection.

Among the supporting cast Odenkirk and Greenwood are especially noteworthy, but Rhys, Letts, Stuhlbarg, Whitford and Plemons all have their moments in the sun, while Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee’s wife), Alison Brie (as Graham’s daughter), and Carrie Coon (as spitfire Post reporter Meg Greenfield) lead the rest of an estimable ensemble. As one expects of a Spielberg film, the technical side of things is aces. Production designer Rick Carter appears to revel in the old-fashioned “Stop the presses!” atmosphere, with the one-page-at-a-time Xerox machines, pay phones and seventies fashions (courtesy of costumer Ann Roth) omnipresent without undue exaggeration, and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski serves it all up with his usual efficiency, while the editing by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar keeps things moving at a good clip without sacrificing clarity. John Williams’ score is hardly one of his more memorable efforts, but it will serve.

“The Post” can’t match the immediacy and visceral excitement of “All the President’s Men,” which told a tale of malfeasance in high places and high-wire journalism still fresh in the memory of its audience. But it ably celebrates an episode that was instrumental in defining the reach of the First Amendment in the face of governmental efforts to restrict it, and if it might seem rather self-righteous in delivering its message, that’s a forgivable flaw in view of the importance of the constitutional principle at a time when it’s coming under increasing assault.