Long Shot

Cast: Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Bob Odenkirk, Alexander Skarsgård

Director: Jonathan Levine

Writers: Dan Sterling, Liz Hannah


The story of the low-status man who falls in love with the high-status woman and attempts to overcome the obstacles keeping them apart is at least as old as The Great Gatsby, but in that particular case the underdog hero has always been played by the dashing, desirable likes of Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio. One could probably imagine that if Jay Gatsby happened to be a tubby, scruffy slob, then the beautiful, highborn Daisy would never have looked at him twice and the story would never have happened. That’s how Long Shot would appear to see it anyway as it presents us with the unlikely romance of the unkempt Seth Rogen and the glamorous Charlize Theron. He plays an overweight, unhygienic and unemployed journalist who gets dismissed by most as a loser with nothing of worth to offer the world while she plays an elegant, intelligent and successful politician whom the people revere. The whole film is built around the idea that a classy and stunning woman like Theron’s Madam Secretary falling for a schmuck like Rogen is so far beyond the realm of possibility as to be worthy of being both dramatized and made fun of. The truth of the matter is a subject of some debate considering how consistently Rogen has been playing appealing romantic leads since Knocked Up, but in any case Long Shot makes for a somewhat flawed and outdated if still charming and watchable film.

The movie follows Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a committedly left-leaning investigative reporter who quits his job in protest upon learning that his newspaper has been bought and absorbed into a corporate media empire run by the Rupert-Murdoch-ish Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). Later the down on his luck Flarsky has a chance encounter with Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Theron), his former babysitter and first crush who even as a 16-year-old Sophomore was determined in her idealism and ambition. Having recently learnt that the inept President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) has no intention of seeking re-election, she has begun laying the groundwork for her own presidential bid. Her polling data however indicates that much of the public views her as rather unapproachable and lacking in warmth and humour. After reading some of Fred’s articles and realising not only what a good writer he is but how deeply he cares about the same issues as she does, Charlotte brings him on board her campaign to punch up her speeches. As they work together for several nights on end and bond over shared values, adolescent memories and inside jokes, their friendship blossoms into a romance that gets put to the test by external prejudice, political pressure and sabotage.

The plot of Long Shot is pretty weak and worn and it goes about it for too long with a two-hour runtime where ninety minutes would have sufficed. What kept me going through it all was the wonderful chemistry between Rogen and Theron, who are thoroughly enjoyable in all of their interactions together. Playing the personas they’ve spent their whole careers cultivating, he as the awkward but lovable stoner nerd and she as the alluring and capable but still compassionately vulnerable lady, both fit naturally into their assigned roles and the comic energy between them endears you all the more to their coupledom. It helps that the film establishes the link between them as being founded on common interests and values and mutual respect for their talents and ambitions. Fred and Charlotte are quite simply two people who like each other in spite of their differences and the movie wastes absolutely no time on pitting them against each other and having them bicker in that Sam & Diane way in order to generate some cheap ‘will they, won’t they’ tension that rom-coms love so much. It’s obvious that these two are going to get together since that’s the premise of the whole movie and the tension arises from whether they’ll be able to make it work despite all the forces that threaten to keep them apart. Their relationship is all the more interesting and delightful for having not indulged in such needless pretence.

The spark that they share does wonders to enhance the comedy side of things, as does the work of much of the supporting cast, particularly June Diane Raphael as Charlotte’s snide and stuck-up campaign manager. As is to be expected whenever Rogen is on board, the movie partakes in gross-out humour and stoner comedy, including a scene where Charlotte is called upon to deal with an international crisis while high on molly and another in which a video of Fred masturbating is unearthed and employed in a blackmail scheme. The film however is at its best and funniest when Rogen and Theron are allowed to play off each other in verbal banter, which is why I wish the film could’ve been a little more Howard Hawks and a little less Judd Apatow. Such an approach however would probably have necessitated a deeper dive into the ideological differences between Charlotte and Fred and a more incisive commentary on the movie’s politics. The film opts to go silly and safe with its brand of humour instead, dropping inoffensively profane one-liners where it can and joking about pop culture and orgasms while paying only mild lip service to a brand of liberalism and gender politics through which they try to score points for progressivism without being so controversial so as to alienate certain audiences. That was where the film lost me the most.

To its credit the movie does make some timely observations about the position of women in today’s political sphere and the unique challenges they face. It rightly observes, for example, how ambivalent men still are about powerful and ambitious women, what regressively narrow parameters the public is willing to accept for their profiles, and how much higher they have to jump to hit the same targets as men. Charlotte, despite being hyper competent at her job, impeccably qualified, and boasting a bulletproof public record, still has to work harder to be accepted as a satisfactory presidential candidate than Chambers, whose one and only qualification was that he played a fictional president on a popular TV show. However, the film never provides any deeper insights into these issues because it’s ultimately only willing to go so far in reflecting the political realities of the world today. Instead the film glosses over how ugly and complicated the political minefield of moral compromise, partisan opposition, and sexist double standards can be, opting for an uncontroversial, centrist ideal with its false equivalencies and simplistic solutions. I could perhaps be a little more charitable and look at the movie as more of a Sorkin-esque political fantasy (the similarities with The American President are unmistakable), one where the strong independent woman gets to have her cake and eat it too. I think that’s a little disingenuous though considering how at the end of the day it’s the woman who has to learn the lesson and change her ways rather than the man.

With little of political substance to fuel the character dynamics and comedy, the quality of the film comes down mainly to the talents of its cast and the execution of certain gags that are often funny in the moment even if they don’t have any lasting consequence. One highlight is when Rogen is outfitted for a fancy banquet in Stockholm. He and Theron work wonders when they share the screen and I can only imagine what they might have accomplished with a smarter and more daring script. The two work so well together that the movie’s total fixation on its central gimmick, that being the comical unlikelihood of their relationship, soon loses its novelty. The way they keep returning to the idea that the gross, fat man and the beautiful, elegant woman have no business being together grows all the more monotonous the clearer it becomes what much more interesting and funnier things they could be doing and talking about if only the movie would let them. You become so convinced of the couple’s suitability that you start to wish the film would engage with them less as comedic archetypes and more as people. It is during the more human moments that Long Shot well and truly shines and that humanity, as determined by the main characters’ core political ideals and struggles in the face of adversity, is what the movie is sorely lacking.

★★★

Incredibles 2

Cast: (voiced by) Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huckleberry Milner, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Brad Bird

Writer: Brad Bird


It amazes me that we had to go through two Cars sequels in order to get here. While Pixar seldom wants for praise anytime they release an original title (Coco just being the most recent example), their non Toy Story sequels tend to receive more lukewarm receptions. Even putting Cars aside (I wasn’t a fan of the original to begin with), Monsters University was weak and unnecessary while Finding Dory, despite being quite good, was not the equal of its predecessor. Even then I think most people would still have agreed that if any Pixar movie demanded a sequel, it was The Incredibles. The smash-hit movie about a family with super powers (not unlike The Fantastic Four except… good), the first film felt very much like an origin story, chapter one in the continued adventures of the Parr family, and it was one of those movies that had a little bit of everything. Action, laughter, drama, suspense, heart; while I wouldn’t rank it among the very best of Pixar, it certainly is one of their most watchable and most likable titles. Fourteen years is a long time to wait for a follow up, but from the very first second it feels like no time at all.

The movie picks up immediately where the last one left off, with the Underminer burrowing through the city and robbing every bank on the way while the Parr family work to try and stop him. Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet and Dash manage to stop the massive drill tank before it crashes into the city hall, but the feds could not be more displeased. As far as they’re concerned, it would’ve been better if the Parr’s had simply let the mole-like baddie go about his business. The banks’ insurance would have covered their losses and there wouldn’t have been nearly as much collateral damage to clear up. Part of what makes these movies work is that the setting is so consistent yet indefinite (vaguely 60s, yet futuristic), it allows the story to be updated for our times without feeling dated. The government, who deems it less costly to let the bad guys get away with it than to let the supers use their abilities for good, decides to scrap the Superhero Relocation Programme, leaving Bob, Helen and the kids to fend for themselves without financial aid or the help of Agent Dicker who had been so good at keeping them hidden from the public (right after he visits Tony, the would-be boyfriend who discovers Violet’s secret identity, and erases his entire memory of her).

There is however at least one person who believes that superheroes should be allowed to serve for the public good and that is business mogul Winston Deavor. A superhero superfan since he was a kid, he wants to work with Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and Frozone to improve the public’s perception of superheroes and launch a campaign to overturn their criminalisation. Using body cameras and gadgets designed by his tech-savvy sister Evelyn, Winston wants to project their heroic deeds to the world and show them why the world needs superheroes. Mr. Incredible is only too keen to volunteer but Winston and Evelyn feel that his style of super justice is too cost-effective for their purposes and that the safer bet is for Elastigirl to be the face of their movement. Thus, with a brand new outfit and a space-age motorbike, Helen gets to work while Bob is left home to care for the kids. While she works to foil the plan of Screenslaver, a new supervillain who projects hypnotic images on television screens to control people (again, a new story for modern times), Bob finds being a parent to be just as tasking as any threat he’s faced as he tries to help Violet with boy troubles, Dash with his school work, and Jack-Jack with his new emerging powers (plural; Bob learns that his infant son has at least 17 abilities including spontaneous combustion, laser eyes, super strength, telekinesis and the ability to phase through walls).

Throughout his career Brad Bird has always been interested in following the stories of characters who defy social expectations and who manage to overcome their own limitations. A giant robot capable of immeasurable destruction instead turns out to be a compassionate being. A rat from the sewers of Paris dreams of nothing more than cooking gourmet dishes in a Michelin restaurant. Here he plays around with the conventions that the two main characters would (and in the first film, did) traditionally fill by having Elastigirl be the breadwinner who goes out to save the day with Mr. Incredible as the stay-at-home dad. There’s also a message here about how sometimes the most heroic thing a person can do is stay behind and look after what’s important while somebody else rushes into danger, a lesson that the kids find they have to learn as well. The theme of daring to be more than what others say you can be is given greater resonance by the introduction of other superheroes (Voyd, Reflux, et al), a collection of outcasts who were inspired by Elastigirl and company and learned that their abilities don’t only make them special, they make them who they are. It’s not the most profound Pixar movie ever made, but not every animated kids film has to be a tearjerker like Inside Out. Sometimes being inspiring is enough.

What makes Incredibles 2 great is not just how touching or rousing it is, but also what an absolute joy it is to watch. The action, from Elastigirl chasing a runaway train to the whole climax with its expert command over simultaneous activities and creative use of a wide array of variable superpowers, is superbly executed and exquisitely animated. The comedy, including but not limited to Jack-Jack trying out his new powers and Edna Mode’s return, is hilarious. The jazzy, titillating, John-Barry-esque score continues to enliven what is already a thrilling, vibrant film. So many children’s movies content themselves with throwing together a string of interchangeable comedy scenes and hammering their morals in between the spaces that flow and pacing have practically become a lost art. This is a movie that flows. It moves so seamlessly from drama to comedy to action and back again and does it with such panache that the two hours completely breeze by. It takes a director of enormous skill and talent to make a movie that is constantly on the move, that includes so much action, story, and character, and to make it all seem effortless. Bird is such a director and Incredibles 2 was worth the fourteen years it took him to make it happen. Whether the next movie comes out tomorrow, in another fourteen years, or when I’m 150, I’ll be waiting.

★★★★★

The Post

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer


Although it tells the story of an event that occurred over four decades ago, The Post was made very much with today’s political climate in mind. In this day and age where the President of the United States has embarked on a campaign to undermine and antagonise the media and to render the very concept of ‘truth’ irrelevant, Spielberg set out to make this film in order to illustrate the vital role that a free press plays in a democratic society. Through this story, The Post champions journalistic integrity and free speech and demonstrates the necessity of a free press to hold those in public office accountable for their actions. Its weakness is that it can feel a little on-the-nose and self-important at times. The pressure and perhaps even obligation the crew felt to make a statement is very apparent, and as a result the movie often feels more like a commentary then it does a movie. It says the right things, but not with as much feeling as I would have liked.

The Post tells the story behind the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, a collection of documents detailing the government’s secret intention to enter what they knew would be an unwinnable war in Vietnam and the truth of the disastrous progress made in the years since. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a disillusioned military analyst, leaks these documents to The New York Times who immediately begin reporting on the contents. When the courts rule that the Times must cease their reporting, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) of The Washington Post tracks down Ellsberg and gains access to the Papers. His editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) wants to run the story despite the court ruling, but the Post’s publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is worried that doing so will lead the company to ruin. It also doesn’t help that one of the figures revealed as one of the perpetrators of the great deception is her close friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Secretary of Defence under the Johnson administration. It is up to Kay to decide whether to back down and ensure the safety of her paper and employees, or to stand up for the freedom of the press and publish the government’s secrets.

For the roles of Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, Spielberg could not have picked two more beloved stars if he tried. Both Streep and Hanks are paragons of liberal Hollywood and are the perfect pair to deliver an idealistic appeal for truth, duty, and liberty. Streep comes into her own as the beleaguered Kay, the publisher of the Post who struggles to reconcile her concern for her friends and her company with her responsibility to the readers of the paper and who faces pressure from the patriarchal board that doesn’t believe her capable of doing a man’s job. She brings a quiet dignity to the character as she tries to make her critical choice pragmatically, knowing full well what others expect from her and what the consequences will be should things go badly. As far as Bradlee is concerned there is no question about publishing and Hanks plays him with grit and gravity. He believes more strongly than anyone that what they do is vital to the country whatever the price, but the film grounds him just enough so that his ideals don’t come across as naiveté. He understands full well the ramifications of what they have discovered and it takes as much of a toll on him as it does anybody, but nonetheless it is still too important to be kept secret from the public.

The Post can be a chore to sit through at times. The film is sometimes so self-indulgent in the way that Aaron Sorkin can sometimes be, so certain in its own rightness and in the absolute truth of its rhetoric, that some scenes almost feel preachy and pretentious. However, whenever the movie feels like it will become too ostentatious, it is saved by the talent of the cast and crew. Spielberg has a talent for storytelling that few other directors possess and the fluidity and focus he displays here is on par with All the President’s Men and Spotlight. His expertise in creating engaging narratives comes through and he is able to make the story feel cinematic in a non-distracting way through subtle uses of the camera and sound. The long take during Streep and Hanks’ first scene together, for example, invites us to pay more attention to the dynamic between the two than a simple back-and-forth would have done. He is aided in his tight storytelling by a superb ensemble, including the likes of Carrie Coon, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who make every second count in their strong, concise performances.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that the attention The Post has received can be credited more to the timeliness of its message than to its individual merits, but that doesn’t mean the attention is undeserved. Although it’ll be interesting to see whether the film will remain relevant or even regarded ten years from now, that’s not for anybody to say today. We can only judge a film as it stands in the present and, at this time, The Post demands a place in the public conversation. The story it tells was made to reflect on this modern age of ‘Fake News’ and it is intended as a direct response to the attacks on the American news media over the past year. The fact that the story it tells reflects so strongly on the world as it is today nearly fifty years afters its occurrence shows that the questions it raises are far from settled. Personally I would have liked this film to speak of the world today with a little more force and bite and to have left a more lasting impression, but if The Post is fated to be remembered as a film of its moment, then it certainly chose the right moment.

★★★★