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We’ve reached the end of my list of my Top Twenty Movies of 2016Click here for numbers twenty through sixteen, click here for numbers fifteen through eleven, and click here for numbers ten through six.

And now, my top five favorite movies of 2016!

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5. Hail, Caesar! I can’t believe how ignored this terrific Coen Brothers movie has been!  Set in Hollywood in the 1950′s, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a studio exec and “fixer” who is trying to locate his kidnapped star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), before news of the star’s disappearance can make it into the papers.  Baird’s kidnapping, by a group of disgruntled Communist screenwriters, is only one of the many fires that Mannix has to try to put out as he tries to keep his studio afloat and all of his in-production pictures running smoothly.  Hail, Caesar! is a very silly film, which is a difficult tone to hit, but the Coen Brothers make it look effortless.   The film mines a lot of humor gently skewering the art of making movies and the pomposity of Hollywood egos.  The fall-on-the-floor hysterical scene in which director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) — whose very name is a subtle gag running throughout the film — tries and fails to give a line reading to the dim-bulb cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) could be the funniest single scene in any movie this year.  Josh Brolin is terrific as the serious man (see what I did there?) trying his best to wrangle all the Hollywood crazies surrounding him.  Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Wayne Knight, Jonah Hill, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Fred Melamed, Patrick Fischler, Robert Picardo, and even Christopher Lambert (the original Highlander himself!) are all so great in their appearances in the film.  While Hail, Caesar! might not be one of the greatest Coen Brothers films ever (of a caliber with The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, or A Serious Man), it is still easily one of the best movies of 2016.  (Click here for my full review.)

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4. Arrival —  When twelve extraterrestrial spaceships appear in different locations around the globe, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tasked with finding a way to communicate with the alien life-forms (huge creatures that the human scientists refer to as “heptapods”).  Arrival is a magnificent film, a gorgeous, original, cerebral sci-fi story.  The film has the visual splendor of a big-budget movie, but this is not an action-adventure film, rather this is an intelligent drama that is a fascinating exploration of language and communication.  I was enormously impressed by the way the film … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Arrival

As the film Arrival opens, we are introduced to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist living a quiet, solitary life following the death of her daughter.  That life is shaken when Earth is visited by extra-terrestrial life, with twelve enormous round objects appearing in different locations around the globe.  Dr. Banks is visited by US Army Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker), who tasks her to join a team working to find a way to communicate with the alien life-forms (huge creatures that the human scientists refer to as “heptapods”) within one of the objects/ships.  Dr. Banks is paired up with a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and together they work to find some way to translate the mysterious, circular shape-based written language of the alien heptapods so that they can discover why the aliens have come to us.

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Arrival is a magnificent film, a gorgeous, original, cerebral sci-fi story.  The film has the visual splendor of a big-budget movie, but this is not an action-adventure film, rather this is an intelligent drama that is a fascinating exploration of language and communication.  I was enormously impressed by the way the film was able to take these difficult-to visualize concepts and bring them to glorious visual life.

While the film has a very quiet, elegiac tone throughout most of its run time, don’t mistake my calling the film cerebral to mean that it doesn’t have a heartbeat.  I was very surprised by how emotionally affecting I found Arrival to be, as the film is as much about the emotional internal life of Dr. Banks (Amy Adams’ character) as it is about the scientific story of language and communication.  The developments in the final twenty minutes or so of the film are devastating — heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure, an extremely difficult balance to achieve — and I find that I have been continually thinking about this film ever since seeing it.

There are some wonderfully mind-bending aspects to the film’s third act, and this is a film I am eager to see again so I can see how it plays knowing where the story winds up.  At first viewing, I was enormously impressed by the careful way in which the story was constructed, with all the different pieces fitting together beautifully in the end.  The film was directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, adapting the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.  Together, this team has crafted an intricate puzzle of a film that was assembled with great skill and craft.

Amy Adams is magnificent in the lead role.  She develops the character of Louise Banks through a lot of small gestures and quiet moments, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Her

March 17th, 2014
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There’s no doubt in my mind that Spike Jonze is one of the very finest filmmakers working today.  Like most of the rest of the world, I was quite taken by his loopy first film, 1999’s Being John Malkovich (I can’t believe it came out so long ago — I need to find the time to see that great film again some-time soon!), and I loved Adaptation even more (click here for my review).  But it was his 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that shot my appreciation of Mr. Jonze’s skills into the stratosphere.  I absolutely adored that film (click here for my review), and I named it as my very favorite film of the year.  I was so taken by Mr. Jonze’s singular vision in adapting that story.  I can’t imagine any other director creating such a remarkably tender, poignant piece of work.

So I’ve obviously been looking forward to Mr. Jonze’s next film for some time.  And while Her might not have been, for me, at the level of Where the Wild Things Are, I still found it to be a riveting piece of work, and another gorgeous, emotional film from this talented director.  (And writer.  Mr. Jonze also wrote the film, his first time as a solo-screenwriter.)

Set in the not-too-distant-future, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore.  Theodore seems a nice young man, and he is a talented writer who does well at his small-time job.  But he is lonely.  Taken by an advertisement he sees for a new operating system with an artificial intelligence, Theodore purchases the system and finds that his life quickly begins to be changed by the vivacious new personality in his life (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who names herself Samantha.  Theodore and Samantha’s bond gradually becomes more intimate, and the film charts the course of the relationship between the two.

I was quite struck by the gentle love story Mr. Jonze has created with this film.  There’s a sci-fi hook (“Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his cell phone!”) and there is certainly some commentary in the film about the direction of our electronics-obsessed culture.  Will our technology help connect us to one another, or make us more distant from each other?  This is not a “message” film, but Theodore’s job (writing intimate letters to loved ones from people who can’t or won’t write them themselves) is a powerful statement as to where Mr. Jonze might stand on that particular debate.  Even more striking than that are several memorable long-shots, scattered throughout the film, in which we see crowds of people moving (down streets, through halls), with everyone’s eyes glued to their phone/mobile … [continued]

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Josh Reviews American Hustle

There’s no question in my mind that David O. Russell is a terrifically skilled director, and it’s been interesting seeing how his recent films have been able to blend his idiosyncratic sensibilities with a slightly more mainstream approach.  I had some problems with Silver Linings Playbook but over-all I really enjoyed the film (click here for my review), and I absolutely adored The Fighter (click here for my review).  And so it was that I entered into American Hustle with my expectations very high.  Mr. Russell had assembled a phenomenal cast, and the reviews had been near-rapturous.

But I must confess that while I found the film to be extremely well-made, I didn’t find it to be nearly as enjoyable as I had expected.  I thought the film, at two hours and 9 minutes, felt FAR longer to me than the three-hour The Wolf of Wall Street, which I saw only a few days before (click here for my review).

But let’s start with what I felt was good about the film.  The cast is indeed fantastic, and what’s particularly fun is the way almost all of the leads are playing against type.  Visually, all of these actors have changed their looks, and I’m not just talking about the humor of seeing these performers all dolled up in seventies get-up (though indeed the clothes in the film are fantastic).  I’m talking about Christian Bale, who played a super-hero, slouched over with a big gut and an outrageous comb-over.  I’m talking about handsome leading man Bradley Cooper’s jheri curl.  I’m talking about the sexed-up look of Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.  But more than their physical transformations was how well each and every one of these actors inhabited these characters.

The stand-out is Christian Bale, who absolutely vanishes into the role of con-man Irving Rosenthal.  Mr. Bale is magnetic in the role, drawing us into the scheming mind of this rather pathetic figure.  The physicality of Mr. Bale’s transformation hooks us into the character, but it is Mr. Bale’s gripping charisma that keeps us locked into this man’s story.  Bradley Cooper nails a very different kind of pathetic as the out-of-his-league FBI man, Richard DiMaso.  Mr. Cooper takes us right into the desperate ambition at DiMaso’s heart.  The first woman in Irving Rosenthal’s life who we meet in the film is Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams.  The two meet at a party, and each one quickly realizes that they have met a peculiar sort of soul-mate in the other.  Sydney gets involved in Irving’s small-time scams, pretending to be a British aristocrat, thus lending a convincing legitimacy to Irving’s scams.  But after a while … [continued]

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Josh Kneels Before Man of Steel

I love Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie from 1978, and for much of my life I thought Superman II was even better.  (My preference has swung back slightly, in recent years, towards the original film.)  Those two movies were a huge part of my childhood, and more than any Superman comic book I have ever read (and I have read a lot), they shaped in my mind the quintessential depiction of Superman.  I stand by my love of Bryan Singer’s homage to the Donner films, 2006’s Superman Returns (has it been that long since Superman Returns came out???  Crazy!!), and I remain bitterly disappointed that we never saw a sequel to that film.

I was excited, though, by the news that Zack Snyder would be directing a new Superman film, working with the Batman Begins team of Christopher Nolan (serving as producer) and writer David S. Goyer.  I love both 300 and Watchmen (particularly the super-long Ultimate Cut of Watchmen) — I think they’re both terrific adaptations of very difficult-to-adapt comic books — and so I was eager to see what Mr. Snyder could do when playing in the bigger sandbox of the Superman mythos.  I suspected he could bring a new energy to  the depiction of Superman on film, and his involvement certainly promised an increase in the action quotient (something that even I admit was sorely lacking in Superman Returns).  

My enthusiasm for the Superman reboot dipped when I heard that they were planning on re-telling Superman’s origin.  That seemed silly to me, as Superman has probably the most famous origin of any comic book character ever.  Why waste time re-telling, yet again, an origin story that everyone on the planet already knows?  Just cut to the chase and tell a great Superman story!  My enthusiasm grew again when the first trailers for Man of Steel began to surface.  I was dazzled by the visual spectacle, and really started to get excited for what seemed to be a very different depiction of Superman on film.

I just left an IMAX screening of Man of Steel, and I am delighted to report that Mr. Snyder and his team have delivered on that promise.  They have threaded the difficult needle of delivering a dramatic reinterpretation of the character and his origin, while at the same time presenting us with a depiction that is, without question, iconically Superman.

The film opens with Jor-El on Krypton, and we spend a lot more time on Krypton than I would have expected.  I loved every second, and almost wish we had a whole film set on Krypton, chronicling the breaking of the friendship between Jor-El and Zod.  (The idea that Jor-El and Zod … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) returns to our cinema screens with a wonderful, perplexing yet phenomenally engaging new film: The Master. It’s a film that I’m not quite sure what to make of, but one that I’ve really been thinking about ever since seeing it.  It’s a hard movie to shake, one that I found to be weirdly captivating despite it’s often stately, leisurely pacing.  Without question it’s the work of a true master of cinema.

Joaquin Phoenix (appearing in his first film since 2008, not counting his weird sort-of-not-really documentary I’m Still Here) plays Freddie Quell.  A navy-man during World War II, in the film’s opening section we watch Freddie repeatedly trying and failing to make a go of any sort of regular life in the years after the war.  He seems to be suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress, though the film lets us draw our own conclusions.  He’s clearly unstable, an angry, intense, young man with a serious habit of heavy-drinking.  Out of work, he stows away on a boat that it turns out is hosting a lengthy excursion to sea by a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-described “writer, doctor, nuclear-physicist, and theoretical philosopher.”  Despite their being complete opposites in nearly every way, Freddie and Mr. Dodd have an immediate connection.  They bond over their love of the potent alcohol that Freddie likes to whip up, and while Dodd feels he can help Freddie and straighten him out, Freddie seems to find in Dodd a friend and father figure absent in his life.

As soon as one of Dodd’s followers refers to him as “master,” we know there might be another side to this charismatic writer and speaker.  Indeed, as Freddie (and the audience) spends more time with Dodd and his close-knit family and followers who seem to be constantly with him, we begin to see how many in his group are following his writings and his philosophies as a complete way of life.  Much has been made over whether the film is or isn’t based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology.  I did not read the film as an attack on scientology in specific, nor did I feel the point of the film was in critiquing any religion or cult.  (And please note that I am not equating the two!!)  There are definitely moments when one might raise one’s eyebrows at certain things we see Dodd’s followers saying or doing.  The film shows the positive power of the community of close-knit followers who surround the man they call “master,” and also the dangers of creeping, unquestioning group-think.

But it seems to me that … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Muppets!

The beginning of The Muppets, the new film starring Jim Hensen’s creations, presents us with a world much like our own: one in which the Muppets have been pretty much forgotten, passed over in favor of more modern sources of entertainment.  Beseeched to get the gang back together and once again put on a Muppet Show, Kermit at first refuses, concerned that there’s no way for the Muppets to ever regain their former status, that the world has changed too much.

It’s a clever way to reintroduce us to these beloved characters as, indeed, it’s been a long long long time since these characters felt at all relevant.  Though I adored The Muppet Show as a kid (and I must have watched the first three films — The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan — dozens of times), I haven’t seen any of the kiddie Muppet films released over the past two decades.  Whatever you think works or doesn’t work in this new Muppets film, we can at least hopefully agree to thank Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin for spearheading a project that takes the Muppets seriously, and that is intended to be enjoyed by kids AND adults, just as the classic Muppets shows and movies were.

There’s been some grumbling in the press by folks like Frank Oz (a tremendous talent who I revere greatly) and other Muppets performers that Jason Segel and the other young turks responsible for this film haven’t been respectful to the Muppets, but that claim couldn’t be further from the truth.  The Muppets is positively dripping with admiration and adoration for these characters, and I was pleasantly surprised by how many loving references to classic Muppets characters and bits were woven into the film.  Most of all, the film’s entire story is clearly designed to prove to the world that the Muppets ARE wonderful characters, and that they CAN still be just as funny, relevant, and entertaining today as they were in the ’70s and ’80s.

One might expect that folks like Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller would try to stuff the film full of crass jokes and dirty humor, but that doesn’t happen at all.  (If anything, the film is a bit TOO square for my tastes.  More on that in a moment.)  And the characters are NEVER played for laughs.  The Muppets generate jokes, but we’re never laughing AT them.  This is an important distinction.  Though most of the characters are voiced by new voice actors (Jim Henson has of course long-since passed away, and Frank Oz declined to participate in the film), the character of each Muppet has been wonderfully preserved, and … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews The Fighter

When I first heard about The Fighter, I thought “here we go again, yet another boxing movie.”  But then I realized that, though I could certainly list a TON of boxing movies, I haven’t actually seen that many of them.  I’m not at all interested in the “sport” of boxing, and though I definitely enjoy some dark, downbeat films, I’m not a big fan of a lot of violence or gore in movies.  All of which means that it’s rare for me to want to go see a boxing film.

But something about The Fighter sparked some interest in me.  Perhaps it was the cast, or perhaps it was the story of Mark Wahlberg’s years-long effort to bring the real-life story of boxer Micky Ward to life.  Whatever the reason, I’m glad I decided to see the film, because it is absolutely terrific.

Mark Wahlberg has turned in some strong performances over the past few years (even when he’s in films that I don’t really like, such as The Other Guys).  He was, for instance, absolutely brilliant in The Departed (click here for my review).  Born in Dorchester, MA, it’s clear that Mr. Wahlberg felt a strong connection to the scrappy fighter from Lowell, MA, and that shows through every moment of the performance.  Mr. Wahlberg is completely believable as a welterweight boxer, but he also brings an endearing gentleness to the portrayal.  His Micky is soft-spoken and desperately eager to please.  It’s fascinating to me that the film’s narrative arc rests on Micky learning to actually be a little bit selfish and make a decision that will do right for HIM, rather than for his mother, sisters, or brother.

Speaking of his brother (really his half-brother), as good as Mark Wahlberg is as Micky Ward, this movie absolutely 100% belongs to Christian Bale and his performance as Dicky Eklund.  Dicky was once a great boxer and “the pride of Lowell,” but now he’s a crack-addicted shambles of a man who’s convinced himself that training his brother to fight will be his road to a comeback.  Mr. Bale’s performance is mesmerizing.  Dicky is a whirlwind of tics and energy that threatens to fly apart any room or situation that he’s in.  We can see the echoes of his charisma that once made him a local hero, and that perhaps also explains why his loved ones tolerate his behavior.  And his smile.  Oh, his smile is devastating.  It conveys such warmth from the heart of this man-child, but it’s also devastatingly sad and pathetic as we quickly see what a self-destructive force Dicky has become.

(The extraordinary high esteem in which I held Christian Bale’s performance as … [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: Catch Me If You Can (2002)

When I began this project of rewatching the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of films directed by Steven Spielberg, I was hoping that I’d discover (or rediscover) some great films that I had perhaps dismissed too easily when I originally saw them in theatres.  I wondered if watching the films now, years later and separated from the hype and expectations that came with their original theatrical releases, would allow me to appreciate them more and perhaps cause me to re-evaluate my original opinions.

So far, though, that hasn’t happened.  I’ve enjoyed (for the most part), re-watching The Lost World, Amistad, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Minority Report, but for all four films my opinions have remained almost exactly what they were when I first saw them.  (In a nutshell: mediocre, good, horrible, mediocre.)  But then, this week, I arrived at Catch Me If You Can.  I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this flick!

Based on the autobiography of Frank Abergnale, Jr. (and co-written by Stan Redding), Catch Me If You Can tells the story of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young man who, for years, successfully conned people into thinking he was an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, and who forged millions of dollars worth of checks.

Mr. Spielberg skillfully strikes a deft balance with the tone of the film.  There are some great moments of humor to be found in the tale (I particularly loved Hanratty’s knock-knock joke), and over-all the film has a fun, light tone.  And yet, at its core, Catch Me If You Can is really a profoundly sad story.  To me, the relationship between Frank and his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) is the back-bone of the film, and it is heartbreaking.  In Frank Jr. we see a young man who, for all of his experiences, is still basically a child, looking for his father’s approval and desperately hoping to find a way to return his life to his idealized vision of how things used to be — with him, his father, and his mother all living happily together in a nice suburban house.  Frank Sr., meanwhile, has seen his business slowly fail (in the film we see him continually dogged by the IRS, and one assumes, despite Frank Sr.’s repeated claims, that this is not without good reason) and his wife leave him, but he is too proud to admit when he needs help and too angry at the government (and the society that allowed him to fail) to push his son to stop the increasingly elaborate con that he’s spinning.

Mr. Walken’s unique line-delivery can make him a ripe subject for parody.  For me, his one scene in Pulp [continued]

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Josh Reviews Julie and Julia

October 5th, 2009
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Here’s how not to get me excited about a film: start it off by trailers for Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself, Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster flick 2012, Rob Marshall’s latest musical Nine, and about five other movies that you could not pay me enough to go see.  Ugh.

Luckily, our feature presentation of Julie and Julia turned out to be rather more entertaining than those dreadful trailers.

Julie and Julia is adapted from “My Life in France,” Julia Child’s posthumously published autobiography, and “Julie & Julia,” New Yorker Julie Powell’s book about her attempt to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s famous cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 365 days.  The film intercuts the stories of the two women as they each find themselves through cooking.

We first meet Julia Child (Meryl Streep) living in Paris in the 1940’s.  She is married to Paul (Stanley Tucci), an American diplomat, and trying to decide just what she “should dooooo” with her time.  Make hats?  Play bridge?  Her love of French food prompts her to take a cooking class, which she quickly masters.  Gradually she comes upon the idea (working with two fellow chefs) to create a cookbook of French recipes designed for Americans, and the movie charts her multi-year struggle to write, and then find a publisher for, this lengthy tome.

We first meet Julie Powell (Amy Adams) living in Queens in 2002 and working a terrible cubicle job (which seems to involve dealing with insurance claims from the families of 9/11 victims).  Looking for some sort of direction, she seizes upon the idea of cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook and blogging about the results (her Julie/Julia blog project).

Both lead actresses in this film are quite magnificent.  Meryl Streep absolutely nails Julia Child, starting with that distinct voice and including the way she carries herself — her Julia dominates every room that she’s in.  I’m not quite certain how much this “with malice towards none” depiction of Julia squares with the genuine article (and indeed, it’s hard to square this version with the Julia who later in life was dismissive of Julie Powell’s blog, a moment seen in the film only from Julie’s perspective), but Mrs. Streep certainly captures how I have always imagined Julia based on watching her on TV.  As for Amy Adams, she is, as always, a delight, whether conveying Julie’s quiet desperation, early in the film, sitting at a table with her far-more successful college chums, or her great delight all the times we see her getting one of Julie’s recipes just right.

I’ve read a lot of critics (including A.O. Scott of the … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Charlie Wilson’s War

Picked this up off the DVD shelf recently, and I must say I enjoyed it as thoroughly as I did when I saw it in theatres last year.  In his review of the film for the New York Times, A.O. Scott described Charlie Wilson’s War as “more of a hoot than any picture dealing with the bloody, protracted fight between the Soviet Army and the Afghan mujahedeen has any right to be.”  I must say that I entirely agree!

Tom Hanks plays Charlie Wilson, a representative from Texas’ Second Congressional District to the U.S. House of Representatives.  Hanks imbues this good ol’ boy with an inordinate amount of charm, whether he’s flirting with women in a hot-tub or debating the intricacies of Constitutional law with a constituent.  Charlie quickly finds common purpose with short-fused, take-no-nonsense C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos, played with great vigor by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  (His opening scene, in which he viciously tells off his boss at the C.I.A., is an absolute riot.)  Hoffman’s Gust is the polar opposite of Charlie — ornery, blunt, and poorly-dressed.  But the two find a strange sort of kinship in their realization of the importance of defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan.

While Hanks and Hoffman get most of the fun (and most of the film’s best lines), the supporting cast is superb as well.  Julia Roberts is beautiful and imposing as the wealthy Joanne Herring; Amy Adams is sassy and smart as Charlie’s assistant Bonnie Bach (though I do wish she had a bit more to do in the film); and I don’t want to forget the delightful Ned Beatty (forever known to my generation as Lex Luthor’s oafish henchman Otis from the Richard Donner Superman movies).

But the real stars of the film are writer Aaron Sorkin and director Mike Nichols.  These two gentlemen know comedy, and they know drama, and they know how to combine the two.  Sorkin’s script is filled with memorable lines (my favorite being Charlie’s response to Joanne’s question as to why Congress is saying one thing and doing nothing: “tradition, mostly”) and the rat-tat-tat dialogue exchanges that he is famous for, but not in a way that overwhelms the story being told.  And Nichols’ direction gives the film a light, enjoyable tone, while not shying away from some difficult questions that any look at the U.S.’s actions during this period must lead to.  This is a film with a clear point to make about today’s political realities, but the filmmakers are confident enough not to hit you over the head with it.  Most importantly, Nichols and the skilled actors with whom he is working are able to create fully-realized characters to populate the film, not one-dimensional … [continued]