“LBJ,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Victoria & Abdul,” “Only the Brave,” “Thank You For Your Service”

By | November 20, 2017

Five films currently in theaters, some of which I actually really liked…

LBJ…Has there been a more underrated President than Lyndon Baines Johnson? One of my Top 5 favorite Presidents has had his legacy universally tarnished by Vietnam—a war that baby boomers must think is still going on judging by how their response to Trump is 60’s or 70’s set movies like the upcoming Pentagon Papers film—and it’s been nearly forgotten that he built the social safety net, passed Medicare and Medicaid, public housing, many regulations we still enjoy today, etc. Johnson’s work on Civil Rights (Voting Rights Act in addition to ending segregation with The Civil Rights Act) has been pretty well covered by “Selma” (poorily) and “All the Way” (terrifically), and you may wonder why director Rob Reiner chose to basically tell the exact same story as the hit Broadway play-turned-TV movie “All the Way.” This film almost exclusively focuses on the same time period Bryan Cranston’s LBJ story did, and the passage of The Civil Rights Act. If you’re like me, you might wonder why more Johnson biographies don’t cover the passage of Medicare/Medicaid at all (this film mentions it in a title card at the end), which many people erroneously credit FDR for starting, that’s how little known most of Johnson’s achievements are: even the biggest ones are usually credited to other presidents. Still, Woody Harrelson does a solid job of portraying Johnson, although not quite as good as Cranston did, and this is a “character” I could watch do his thing all day. The movie’s most interesting idea is the division between idealistic Democrats who can’t get anything done (like the Kennedys) and Johnson’s less beloved, but more effective workhorse approach. Grade: B+

Murder on the Orient Express…A faithful but still somehow glib retelling of Agatha Christie’s famous crime mystery. The major problem with adapting this book is that it’s arguably the most famous ending to a murder mystery ever and many audience members familiar with the book will already know the ending. Still, there’s something to be said for relaxing in the company of a fine director (Kenneth Branaugh, here playing double duty as the somewhat annoyingly fussy lead detective) and impressive cast during the Winter period, and the technical details are so exquisite “Express” is a shoe-in for technical category nominations like costume design or art direction. Grade: C+

Victoria & Abdul…You keep feeling there’s something more interesting going on beneath the surface of this story of Queen Victoria’s “friendship” with an Indian servant who gets promoted to her teacher. The movie insinuates that this may have been more than a friendship, but never lets itself cross that line. From the opening scene (in which Judi Dench’s monarch ill-manneredly scarfs down a multi-course dinner her massive dining party has to keep up with), this is a film about the end of the British empire, as its been nearly leached of vitality through bored traditions that no longer make sense and a near-obtuse sense of their own racial superiority. Abdul is meant to symbolize a resurgence of the queen’s passion, but everyone around her (like the terrific Eddie Izzard, in an ironically traditional role as her disapproving son) seems hell-bent on that not happening. Still, by the end you have to admit that this a “little known” case of history mostly because it doesn’t seem terribly consequential for anyone involved in it. Grade: B

Thank You For Your Service…A noble but dreary and somewhat lifeless film about veterans living with PTSD that is too long and yet not quite probing enough. It never gets you fully inside the condition (what do the characters see during their freak-outs? the movie isn’t disquieting enough to replicate their mindset, despite able performances), and it hasn’t been lost on me that films about soldiers returning from Afghanistan/Iraq have outpaced actual Afghanistan/Iraq movies by about a 5-to-1 ratio. If you’re going to watch a Miles Teller starring-film about scarred badasses doing heroic things, I’d recommend “Only the Brave” instead. Grade: C+ Hey, speaking of…

Only the Brave…Even if you know how this true-story ends beforehand (I didn’t know), it’s still more than worth watching. Josh Brolin is fantastic as the leader of a crew of “hot shots” (guys that try to control the direction and path of wildfires) and his marriage to Jennifer Connelly is the rare “tough guy” side-romance plot that actually feels like an adult marriage. Most straight romantic dramas could learn a thing or two by watching their lived-in, realistic depiction. The film peppers in just enough action that you might miss that you’re really watching the film “Thank You For Your Service” wanted to be: an epic about what it means to be a guy who depends on other guys to come out of a situation alive, and the nuanced brotherhood that comes with that. Grade: A-

One thought on ““LBJ,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Victoria & Abdul,” “Only the Brave,” “Thank You For Your Service”

  1. BOBBY

    Loved reading all about the movies. Politics and movies……what could be better?

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