Premiere Review #5: The Post

 

“The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish” – Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee in The Post.

The Post is an important movie. It tells a story important to Americans and important to understand in the current context. The Post tells the story of a timely defense of American liberty against an increasingly domineering government – specifically, the Washington Post’s exercise of free speech concerning the Vietnam War.

And the storytelling is masterful. This film is created by masters of the craft. The ensemble includes Steven Spielberg (director), John Williams (music), Meryl Streep (Kay Graham), Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), and many other talented actors. The performances were impeccably intricate, subtle, and finessed. True statements of sophisticated ability, especially from Mrs. Streep and Mr. Hanks. All the elements of production and performance work together to create palpable tension and action in a story that could have easily become immobile and passive. The Post is an admirable feat of storytelling.

The Post also makes constructive political commentary without over-implication. This is very important in a film of this nature. It must be understood that U.S. governments and leaders have always lied, they have always told the truth, and they have always served their country. Secrecy has always been part of the government, at times to protect Americans and at times to conceal corruption. It is not an easy task to discern between these and act accordingly, but that is our responsibility as American citizens. Take for example the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 under John F. Kennedy. The campaign failed in part because Fidel Castro was able to read about it in advance in the U.S. news. At times, prudent secrecy is necessary.

But secrecy must not be confused with overt lies. We are imperfect by nature, so we naturally must strive to correct out weaknesses and further out strengths to our best ability. At times, the people will hold the president accountable. And at times, I hope the president will hope the people accountable. That relationship is essential to our democracy. That is fundamentally the story of The Post: a group of Americans who would not tolerate an unjust exercise of power and so took decisive action to hold the president accountable to the truth. It was a triumph of freedom. However, we must use prudence to ensure that such significant actions are always aimed at the realization of objective truth and morality, and not the procurement of self-interested ends. Thankfully, we have Kay Graham and the Washington Post as role models.

The film has been criticized for misrepresenting history by downplaying the New York Times’s leading role in publishing the Pentagon Papers while making the Washington Post the protagonist. I suppose that the artistic license taken by The Post was intended to serve the telling of Kay Graham’s story. I think it is very important for historical films to be aware of the responsibility associated with the content; there is a place for purposeful artistic reshaping, but there is not a place for disrespecting men and women who made sacrifices to change the world. Stories must be told with the utmost respect for the truth.

I do not think The Post is disrespectful of the history it tells, but perhaps there are ways it can show more respect. It is fundamentally an extremely well-crafted film balancing both sides of its arguments with sufficient fairness. I mention the topic of historical accuracy to highlight a question that I am currently struggling with as an artist: If art is intended to reveal truth, how much can the artist manipulate true events or details?

I gladly defer to the experience and wisdom of the great artists who created The Post. The film has a maturity worthy of its content and tells a momentous story with artistic integrity.

Final Take: The Post is a should see.

 

Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenplay: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer

Music: John Williams

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

Premiere: December 14, 2017 (Newseum, Washington D.C.)

Theatrical Release: (limited) December 22, 2017 – (full) January 12, 2018

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Premiere Review #4: I, Tonya

Words can hardly begin to describe I, Tonya. Yet they must. The movie is breathtaking, agonizing, hilarious, visceral, beautiful, devastating, human. Based on real interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly, I, Tonya brings to light the fascinating events surrounding the life and career of an incredibly resilient woman. I, Tonya is about skating, family, love, suffering, responsibility, determination, trust, forgiveness, fame, and justice. It transcends definition and genre. The film adopts Tonya Harding’s boldness in the way it defies the traditional narrative form. It weaves the interviews through the events and blends numerous styles seamlessly. In the few moments where the seams are noticeable, they serve the story wonderfully. The writing (Steven Rogers) is clear, purposeful, and crackling with vitality and power. I think the film has pioneered a new form of storytelling.

The performances are complete and pure. As such, they have immense emotional and intellectual impact. This is the ultimate achievement of the actor: to make himself or herself utterly transparent so that the character can exist fully and truthfully. Margot Robbie came extraordinarily close to achieving utter transparency. Her work is stunning. Her demonstration of Harding’s fierce feminine strength is profound. Her technicality is remarkable. Among a great many things, she trained for over 5 months in preparation for the skating routines, and she studied Harding’s distinctive accent intensely enough to improvise in character playing ages 15 to 46. Her understanding and exploration of the character are intimate, and she presents her discoveries authentically and generously.

Thank you, Margot Robbie, for sharing this story so selflessly. Your work, especially in the mirror scene and the final courtroom scene, is beyond inspiring.

The skating sequences are outstanding. Somehow the cinematography captures the dichotomy between the danger beneath the routines and the pristine exterior of the sport. The film also balances the fine line between drama and comedy. We all have both within us. I, Tonya portrays that humanity masterfully with a sharpness and gracefulness worthy of Harding’s skating and spirit.

I, Tonya is a splendid tribute to an incredible woman. It shows her courage, determination, flaws, and strengths with compassion and honesty. In an interview for the Hollywood Reporter, Tonya Harding thanked Margot Robbie for helping her establish her true story and let go of her past. I, Tonya helps us remember that we are capable of greatness even when the world says we won’t amount to anything.

Final Take: I, Tonya is a must see.

 

Director: Craig Gillespie

Screenplay: Steven Rogers

Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale

Premiere: September 8, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival)

Theatrical Release: December 8, 2017

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Premiere Review #3: Pitch Perfect 3

 

The Bellas return for a final installment of their a cappella adventures in Pitch Perfect 3. They face the joys and difficulties of adulthood and ultimately share a fond farewell as they each embark on their own path. Pitch Perfect 3 is a lively and neat denouement for the series and brings a semi-satisfying closure to the story. Occasionally, the script seemed to be over-stretched attempting to tie up loose ends. For the most part, however, the film flowed naturally and even contained some genuine surprises, which is a strong accomplishment for such a well-known series.

Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as commentators Gail and John are hilarious.

The music is as contagious as ever. The songs and renditions were creative and smart. The energy, attitude, and quirkiness so beloved of the Bellas was very much a centerpiece of the story and the music. No matter your vocal aptitude, some of the musical numbers are likely to inspire visions of your own voice echoing in vast arenas, lights flashing behind you, your fans singing their favorite lyrics…

The film’s celebration of sisterhood was also inspiring. The connection between the women was endearing and uplifting. This is a very timely message, well-shared by the cast and crew behind Pitch Perfect 3.

My main critic of the film is that it was too political at times. I don’t think an overt political agenda belongs in a movie like this one. It is much better (and effective) to let the messages inherent in the characters and stories speak for themselves without padding the script. Many references to the current political environment and common prejudices had no comic, satirical, or even informative significance and in that way were excessive. We didn’t need the obvious references; the message was already understood in the characters. These moments added superficiality to a film that was often quite authentic.

Pitch Perfect 3 is funny throughout (despite occasional crassness) and musically dazzling. It is even socially poignant when it gets out of its way.

Final Take: Pitch Perfect 3 is a maybe see.

 

Director: Trish Sie

Screenplay: Kay Cannon, Mike White

Music: Christopher Lennertz

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Hailee Steinfeld, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Alexis Knapp, Chrissie Fit, Shelley Regner, Kelly Jakle, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks

Premiere: November 29, 2017 (Sydney, Australia)

Theatrical Release: December 22, 2017

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Premiere Review #2: All the Money in the World

How much are we willing to sacrifice for the people we love? What is the impact of greed on the self and the family? What do we do when things are beyond our control? How do we respond when evil seems impossible to conquer?

These are just a few of the questions faced by the film All the Money in the World. Set mainly in Italy during 1973, with a number of locational and historical deviations, All the Money in the World tells the story of Paul Getty III’s (Charlie Plummer) kidnapping and his mother’s (Michelle Williams) efforts to bring him home. Paul Getty is the grandson of oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty, one of the wealthiest Americans in history whose lifetime of art and artifact collection constitutes most of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. All the Money in the World is inspired by true events and based on John Pearson’s book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty.

There are many things to be said about this film, so I will touch on only a few here. The set of the movie was wonderfully rich and textured. The sidestreets and countrysides of Italy bring a viscerality to the events, enhancing their intensity and enchantment. I am particularly fond of films set in Italy. I have Italian roots (namely Sicilian) and I had the opportunity to study in Rome and the surrounding regions for four months. The ancient grandeur and perpetual humanity of Italy are unforgettable, and All the Money in the World captures those qualities quite well. The soundtrack (by Daniel Pemberton) draws the audience into the story will thrilling vivacity and variety. It is massive in its expanse and intimate in its effect. The film also captures the period very very effectively in all the details, down to Mrs. Getty’s clip-on earrings. This made the story all the more real and impactful.

The performances are incredible. Christopher Plummer (more on him and his role below) is a master of his craft, and that is evident in his work as Getty. Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer, and Romain Duris all provide compelling performances. However, something special must be said of Michelle Williams. I am absolutely in awe of Ms. Williams and her work as Mrs. Getty. Her portrayal of a mother determined to endure whatever she must to protect her children is nothing less than heroic. She is riveting in this film.

The story behind Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of J.P. Getty merits some attention. Kevin Spacey was originally cast in the role, and his name was even included in the early marketing campaigns for the film. After the numerous sexual assault allegations against him, Ridley Scott recast the part. Scott reportedly spent a quarter of the film’s budget to make the necessary adjustments (Vilkomerson). On November 8th, hardly a month before its scheduled release date of December 22nd, Scott announced that all of Spacey’s scenes would be reshot with Christopher Plummer playing the role. The rest of the key actors, Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg included, willingly spent Thanksgiving week working on set to ensure that the film would be released as promised. The release date was ultimately pushed to Christmas Day, but for other reasons – the film was complete before its original release date.

I find this effort and determination on the part of the cast and crew just as inspiring and moving as the film itself. Michelle Williams spoke on the decision,

This doesn’t do anything to ease the suffering of people who were all too personally affected by Kevin Spacey, but it is our little act of trying to right a wrong. And it sends a message to predators — you can’t get away with this anymore. Something will be done. (Vilkomerson)

Scott also commented,

You can’t tolerate any kind of behavior like that. And it will affect the film. We cannot let one person’s action affect the good work of all these other people. It’s that simple. (Vilkomerson)

This is precisely the sort of spirit and example our society needs. See Entertainment Weekly for a great article written on this story.

Running over two hours and covering a complicated series of events, All the Money in the World takes the distinct risk of losing its grip on its audience. The film meets this challenge masterfully. I was spellbound by the entire movie. And it stuck with me through the drive back to my apartment and even into my written of this review. It is one of those movies that remains present in your mind even after it is over. It is one of those movies that makes you drive home in silence.

Keep this film in mind come Oscar season. I hope it receives the recognition it deserves. Most especially, I hope that Michelle Williams is recognized and honored for her exemplary performance.

Final Take: All the Money in the World is a must see.

 

Director: Ridley Scott

Screenplay: David Scarpa

Starring: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer

Premiere: December 18, 2017 (Samuel Goldwyn Theater, CA)

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2017

 

Sources:

Vilkomerson, Sara. “Ridley Scott breaks silence on replacing Kevin Spacey in All the Money in the World”. Entertainment Weekly, November 29, 2017.

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Premiere Review #1: The Greatest Showman

Within the first twenty minutes, there were already tears building in my eyes. That sensation remained through the rest of the movie, ebbing with the flow of the story. The Greatest Showman pulls you into its world with a dazzling and unapologetic excitement. The production concept brings the mid-late Victorian era together with the modern Broadway musical, and it’s a stunning combination. While The Greatest Showman is about P.T. Barnum and his early career, it is much more than a biography. It is a celebration of individual beauty and courage. It is a story about love and family. And it’s exceptionally moving. The music is all original and profoundly expressive, and the performances from each of the actors and actresses are extraordinary. The cast really seems to be a unified ensemble, and even Hugh Jackman’s starring role is met with grace and complexity by the rest.

This movie is not exactly a true representation of P.T. Barnum’s life, but more of an exploration of his spirit and the climate of the age. It drew an interesting parallel between the prejudices of the Victorian era and the prejudices we still face today. While maintaining its poignancy, the movie was playful and entertaining. There were a few moments, however, that struck me as a bit too overly sweet, both in a sentimental and a narrative sense. But I ultimately understood that those moments were natural to the tone. The Greatest Showman is very much an imaginative world based on reality. Much like P.T. Barnum’s imagination and ambition, this movie goes far beyond what is simply realistic. It is a remarkable portrayal of the power of love and imagination, and it remains artful, accessible, invigorating, and beautiful throughout.

Final Take: The Greatest Showman is a should see.

 

Director: Michael Gracey

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle

Screenplay: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon

Original Songs: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Premiere: December 8, 2017 (RMS Queen Mary 2, New York City)

Theatrical Release: December 20, 2017

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