Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Post (dir by Steven Spielberg)


So, I finally sat down and watched the 2017 film, The Post.

The Post is something of an odd film.  Imagine if someone made a film about the production of a movie.  And imagine if, instead of focusing on the actors or the members of the crew or even the director, the film was instead about the studio executives sitting back in Hollywood and debating whether or not they should agree to give the director another million dollars to complete the film.  Imagine dramatic scenes of the execs meeting with their accountants to determine whether they can spare an extra million dollars.  Imagine triumphant music swelling in the background as one of the execs announces that they’ll raise the budget but only in return for getting to pick the title of the director’s next film.  The Post is kind of like that.  It’s a film about journalism that’s more concerned with publishers and editors than with actual journalists.

To be honest, The Post‘s deification of the bosses shouldn’t really be that much of a shock.  This is a Steven Spielberg film and a part of Spielberg’s legend has always been that, of all the young, maverick directors who emerged in the 70s, he was always the one who was the most comfortable dealing with the studio execs.  As opposed to directors like Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, and Francis Ford Coppola, Spielberg got along with the bosses and they loved him.  While his contemporaries were talking about burning Hollywood down and transforming the culture, Spielberg was happily joining the establishment and reshaping American cinema.  No one can deny that Spielberg is a talented filmmaker.  It’s just that, if anyone was going to make a movie celebrating management, you just know it would be Steven Spielberg.

Taking place in the early 70s, The Post deals with the decision to publish The Pentagon Papers, which were thirty years worth of classified documents dealing with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  Since the Pentagon Papers revealed that the government spent several decades lying to the American people about the situation in Vietnam, there’s naturally a lot of pushback from the government.  It all leads to one of those monumental supreme court decisions, the type that usually ends a movie like this.  And while the film does acknowledge that there were journalists involved in breaking the story, it devotes most of its attention to editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep).

Gasp as Ben and Katharine debate whether to publish the story!

Shudder as Katharine tries to figure out how to keep the Post from going bankrupt.

Watch as Ben Bradlee talks to the legal department!

Thrill as Katharine Graham learns that her family friends, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, weren’t always honest with her!

And listen, I get it.  The Post isn’t as much about Nixon and the Vietnam War as it’s about Trump and the modern-day war on the media.  And yes, we get plenty of scenes of Tom Hanks explaining why freedom of the press is important and the movie ends in typical Spielberg fashion, with triumphant music and all the rest.  But watching The Post, it’s hard not to think about other films that celebrated journalism, films like All The President’s Men and Spotlight.  Both of those films featured scenes of editors supporting their reporters.  In fact, All The President’s Men featured Jason Robards playing the same editor that Tom Hanks plays in The Post.  But Spotlight and All The President’s Men focused on the journalists and the hard work that goes into breaking an important story.  Robards and Spotlight‘s Michael Keaton played editors who were willing to stand up and defend their reporters but, at the same time, those films emphasized that it was the underpaid and underappreciated reporters who were often putting their careers (and sometimes, their lives) on the line to break a story.  Whereas Spotlight and All The President’s Men showed us why journalism is important, The Post is content to merely tell us.

The Post was a famously rushed production.  Shooting started in May of 2017 and was completed in November, all so it could be released in December and receive Oscar consideration.  Production was rushed because Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks all felt that it was important to make a statement about Trump’s treatment of the press.  While I can see their point and I don’t deny that they had noble intentions, a rushed production is still going to lead to a rushed film.  The Post is a sloppy film, full of way too much on-the-nose dialogue and scenes that just seem to be missing Spielberg’s usual visual spark.  It feels less like a feature film and more like a well-made HBO production.  Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep give performances that are all surface.  Streep’s performance is all mannered technique while Hanks occasionally puts his feet up on his desk and furrows his brow.

It gets frustrating because, watching the film, you get the feeling that there’s a great movie to be made about the Pentagon Papers and the struggle to publish them.  I’d love to know what the actual reporters went through to get their hands on the papers.  But The Post is more interested in management than the workers.

All through 2017, The Post was touted as being a sure Oscar front-runner.  When it was released, it received respectful but hardly enthusiastic reviews.  In the end, it only received two nominations — one for best picture and one for Streep.  In a year dominated by Lady Bird, Shape of Water, Get Out, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Post turned to be a nonfactor.  For all the hype and expectations, it’s the film that you usually forget whenever you’re trying to remember everything that was nominated last year.

Film Review: Ghostbusters (dir by Paul Feig)


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If you need any further proof that 2016 is a screwed-up year, just consider the fact that Ghostbusters, an entertaining but ultimately rather mild-mannered and innocuous summer action/comedy, has become the center of one of the biggest controversies of the year.

It all started, of course, when the reboot was first announced.  Fanboys reacted with outrage, offended that Hollywood would even consider remaking a film that was apparently one of the defining moments of their childhood.  Then, it was announced that Ghostbusters would feature an all-female cast and it would be directed by Paul Feig, the director of Bridesmaids.  The howls of outrage grew even louder.  Then that infamous trailer was released and even I felt that trailer sucked.  I wasn not alone because the trailer quickly became one of the most disliked videos in the history of YouTube.  Reading the comments underneath that trailer was literally like finding yourself trapped in a production of Marat/Sade.

Suddenly, in the eyes of very vocal group of internet trolls, the reboot of Ghostbusters went from being simply another dubious idea to being a crime against humanity.  And the trolls were so obnoxious that they managed to turn this big-budget, studio-backed production into an underdog.  Here was a movie directed by one of Hollywood’s biggest directors and starring some of Hollywood’s hottest stars and suddenly, it had become David in a biblical showdown with the Goliaths of internet.

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And then it happened.  Earlier last week, Ghostbusters was finally screened for critics.  The first reviews started to come in and they were surprisingly positive.  In fact, they were so positive that I found myself distrusting them.  I found myself wondering if critics were reacting to the film or if they were simply trying to prove that they were better than the trolls who leave obscene comments on YouTube.

Which was true, I wondered.  Was Ghostbusters the worst film ever made or was it the greatest?  Or was it perhaps just possible that Ghostbusters would turn out to be a typical summer film?

With all the controversy, it’s tempting to overpraise a film like Ghostbusters.  Battle lines have been drawn and sometimes, I feel as if I’m being told that failing to declare Ghostbusters to be the greatest and most important comedy of all time is the equivalent of letting the trolls win.

Well, that’s not true.  Ghostbusters is not the greatest or the most important comedy of all time but you know what?  Ghostbusters is good.  Ghostbusters is entertaining.  Especially during the first half, it’s full of laugh out loud moments.  At times, Ghostbusters is everything that you could hope for.

No, it’s not a perfect film.  Paul Feig is a great comedy director but, in this film at least, his direction of the big action sequences often feels uninspired (especially when compared to his previous work on Spy).  The final fourth of the film gets bogged down in CGI and the film goes from being a clever comedy to being just another summer spectacle.  Even the one-liners, which flowed so naturally at the start of the film, feel forced during the final half of the film.  Ghostbusters is good but it never quite becomes great.

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Here’s what did work: the cast.  As he previously proved with Bridesmaids, Paul Feig is a director who is uniquely skilled at creating and showcasing a strong comedic ensemble.  Kristen Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, who is denied tenure at Columbia when it is discovered that a book she wrote on the paranormal has been republished and is being sold, on Amazon, by her former best friend, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy).  When Erin goes to confront Abby, she not only meets Abby’s newest colleague, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) but she also gets dragged into investigating an actual case of paranormal activity..  Soon, Erin, Abby, and Holtzmann are investigating hauntings and capturing ghosts, all with the secret approval of the Mayor of New York (Andy Garcia).  Of course, for PR reasons, the mayor’s office has to continually disavow the Ghostbusters and occasionally have them arrested.  Working alongside the three scientists are Patty (Leslie Jones), who apparently knows the history of every building in New York, and Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), their adorably stupid receptionist.

As written, both Patty and Kevin are fairly thin characters.  Kevin’s the handsome dumb guy.  Patty is streetwise and sassy.  But both Hemsworth and Jones give such enthusiastic and sincere performances that they transcend the stereotypical nature of their roles.  At times, Kevin runs the risk of becoming too cartoonish for even a Ghostbusters film.  But if you can’t laugh at Chris Hemsworth explaining that he took the lenses out of his glasses because they were always getting dirty, what can you laugh at?

Erin is an interesting character and Kristen Wiig deserves a lot of credit for her performance.  Erin is actually given a fairly affecting backstory, centering around how she was haunted by the ghost of the old woman who used to live next door to her.  Erin is a former believer, someone who, in order to succeed in the “real” world, gave up her beliefs and conformed to the expectations of society.  When she actually meets a ghost, it’s more than just a confirmation of the supernatural.  It’s a chance for Erin to finally embrace who she truly is and what she truly cares about.  When she and the other ghostbusters chase after evil spirits, Erin is not just doing a job.  Instead, she’s finally found somewhere where she belongs.  She no longer has to pretend to be someone that she isn’t.  Wiig plays the role with just the right touch of neurotic wonder.  She grounds the entire film.

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But the true star of the film is Kate McKinnon.  Whether she’s cheerfully smiling as a ghost vomits all over her colleagues or cheerfully explaining how easily their equipment could kill them all, Holtzmann is the greatest character in the film and McKinnon gives the best performance.  If Wiig grounds the film, McKinnon provides it with a truly demented soul.

The first half of the movie, which focuses on the relationships between the characters and features snappy and endlessly quotable dialogue, is wonderful and I was thrilled while watching it, convinced that the entire movie would be as good as the first hour.  However, the second half of the film gets bogged down in a rather predictable plot and the final action sequences could have just as easily been lifted from Pixels or one of The Avengers movies.  The surviving cast of the original Ghostbusters all show up in cameos that are, at best, inoffensive and, at worst, groan-worthy.  The end result is rather uneven.  If the film had maintained the momentum of that first hour, it would be a classic.  But that second half transforms it into just another entertaining but not quite memorable summer action film.

That said, Paul Feig is an excellent comedy director and let’s hope that he never gets so self-important that he ends up turning into Jay Roach.  Hopefully, if there is a sequel, Feig will return to direct it and Kate McKinnon will have an even bigger role.

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Playing Catch-Up With 6 Mini-Reviews: Amy, Gloria, Pitch Perfect 2, Sisters, Spy, Trainwreck


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Amy (dir by Asif Kapadia)

Amy opens with brilliant and, in its way, heartbreaking footage of a 14 year-old Amy Winehouse and a friend singing Happy Birthday at a party.  Even though she’s singing deliberately off-key and going over-the-top (as we all tend to do when we sing Happy Birthday), you can tell that Amy was a star from the beginning.  She’s obviously enjoying performing and being the center of attention and, try as you might, it’s impossible not to contrast the joy of her Happy Birthday with the sadness of her later life.

A star whose music touched millions (including me), Amy Winehouse was ultimately betrayed by a world that both wanted to take advantage of her talent and to revel in her subsequent notoriety.  It’s often said the Amy was self-destructive but, if anything, the world conspired to destroy her.  By focusing on footage of Amy both in public and private and eschewing the usual “talking head” format of most documentaries, Amy pays tribute to both Amy Winehouse and reminds us of what a great talent we all lost in 2011.

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Gloria (dir by Christian Keller)

The Mexican film Gloria is a musical biopic of Gloria Trevi (played by Sofia Espinosa), a singer whose subversive songs and sexual image made her a superstar in Latin America and challenged the conventional morality of Catholic-dominated establishment.  Her manager and lover was the controversial Sergio Andrade (Marco Perez).  The movie follows Gloria from her first audition for the manipulative Sergio to her arrest (along with Sergio) on charges of corrupting minors.  It’s an interesting and still controversial story and Gloria tells it well, with Espinosa and Perez both giving excellent performances.

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Pitch Perfect 2 (dir by Elizabeth Banks)

The Bellas are back!  As I think I’ve mentioned a few times on this site, I really loved the first Pitch Perfect.  In fact, I loved it so much that I was a bit concerned about the sequel.  After all, sequels are never as good as the original and I was dreading the idea of the legacy of the first film being tarnished.

But the sequel actually works pretty well.  It’s a bit more cartoonish than the first film.  After three years at reigning ICCA champions, the Bellas are expelled from competition after Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally flashes the President.  The only way for the Bellas to get the suspension lifted is to win the World Championship of A Capella.  The plot, to be honest, really isn’t that important.  You’re watching the film for the music and the interplay of the Bellas and, on those two counts, the film totally delivers.

It should be noted that Elizabeth Banks had a great 2015.  Not only did she give a great performance in Love & Mercy but she also made a respectable feature directing debut with Pitch Perfect 2.

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Sisters (dir by Jason Moore)

It’s interesting how opinions can change.  For the longest time, I really liked Tina Fey and I thought that Amy Poehler was kind of overrated.  But, over the past two years, I’ve changed my opinion.  Now, I like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey kind of gets on my nerves.  The best way that I can explain it is to say that Tina Fey just seems like the type who would judge me for wearing a short skirt and that would get old quickly, seeing as how I happen to like showing off my legs.

Anyway, in Sisters, Tina and Amy play sisters!  (Shocking, I know.)  Amy is the responsible one who has just gotten a divorce and who wants to make everyone’s life better.  Tina is the irresponsible one who refuses to accept that she’s no longer a teenager.  When their parents announce that they’re selling the house where they grew up, Amy and Tina decide to throw one last party.  Complications ensue.

I actually had two very different reactions to Sisters.  On the one hand, as a self-declared film critic, it was easy for me to spot the obvious flaw with Sisters.  Tina and Amy should have switched roles because Tina Fey is simply not believable as someone who lives to have fun.  Sometimes, it’s smart to cast against type but it really doesn’t work here.

However, as the youngest of four sisters, there was a lot of Sisters that I related to.  I saw Sisters with my sister, the Dazzling Erin, and even if the film did not work overall, there were still a lot of little scenes that made us smile and go, “That’s just like us.”  In fact, I think they should remake Sisters and they should let me and Erin star in it.

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Spy (dir by Paul Feig)

There were a lot of very good spy films released in 2015 and SPECTRE was not one of them.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am with the latest Bond film.  It’s not so much that SPECTRE was terrible as there just wasn’t anything particular memorable about it.  When we watch a film about secret agents saving the world, we expect at least a few memorable lines and performances.

Now, if you want to see a memorable spy movie, I suggest seeing Spy.  Not only is Spy one of the funniest movies of the year, it’s also a pretty good espionage film.  Director Paul Feig manages to strike the perfect balance between humor and action.  One of the joys of seeing CIA employee Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) finally get to enter the field and do spy stuff is the fact that there are real stakes involved.  Susan is not only saving the world but, in the film’s best scenes, she’s having a lot of fun doing it and, for that matter, McCarthy is obviously having a lot of fun playing Susan and those of us in the audience are having a lot of fun watching as well.

Spy also features Jason Statham as a more traditional action hero.  Statham is hilarious as he sends up his own macho image.  Seriously, who would have guessed that he could such a funny actor?  Here’s hoping that he, McCarthy, and Feig will all return for the inevitable sequel.

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Trainwreck (dir by Judd Apatow)

There’s a lot of great things that can be said about Trainwreck.  Not only was it the funniest film of 2015 but it also announced to the world that Amy Schumer’s a star.  It was a romantic comedy for the 21st Century, one that defied all of the conventional BS about what has to happen in a romcom.  This a film for all of us because, let’s just be honest here, we’ve all been a trainwreck at some point in our life.

But for me, the heart of the film was truly to be found in the relationship between Amy and her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larson).  Whether fighting over what to do with their irresponsible father (Colin Quinn) or insulting each other’s life choices, their relationship is the strongest part of the film.  If Brie Larson wasn’t already guaranteed an Oscar nomination for Room, I’d demand that she get one for Trainwreck.  For that matter, Amy Schumer deserves one as well.

Seriously, it’s about time the trainwrecks of the world had a film that we could truly call our own.

Shattered Politics #85: In the Loop (dir by Armando Iannucci)


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First released in 2009, In The Loop is one of the most brilliant political satires ever made.

The film opens in London, as a slightly ridiculous man named Toby (Chris Addison) starts his first day as the special assistant to the Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander).  And what a day to start!  Both the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister are eager to invade the Middle East and, during an interview the previous night, Simon accidentally announced that war was “unforseeable.”  This has led to people accidentally assuming that Simon is anti-war (Simon really doesn’t seem to have an opinion one way or the other) but it also means that the Prime Minister’s compulsively profane assistant, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), is now running around the office and threatening people.

(I doubt that there’s any way that I can do justice to Capaldi’s performance here.  You simply have to see him.  He is a force of nature, a tornado of nonstop profanity and aggression.)

Not every government official in the U.S. is enthusiastic about going to war.  Both Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and her former lover, Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) are opposed to the war.  Karen’s assistant, Liza (Anna Chlumsky), has even written a paper that explains why a war in the Middle East could not be won.  Karen hopes to use Simon as a spokesman to keep the British out of the war and, therefore, America as well.

(Toby, meanwhile, just wants to have sex with Liza.)

However, there are a few factors that complicate things.  First off, Malcolm is determined to make sure that the Prime Minister gets what he wants and if that means bullying and scaring everyone into supporting an unwinnable war, that’s exactly what he’s going to do.  Secondly, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State For Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche) is eager enough to start a war that he’s actually started a secret committee to find a way to get into the war.  (The committee, of course, has been called the Committee For Future Planning.)  Third, and perhaps most importantly, Simon is an idiot.

Along with being both a satire of American-British relations (my favorite moment comes when a random American tourist tells Malcolm to stop cursing in public) and the lead-up to the Iraq War, In The Loop is also a devastating look at how government works.  In the Loop makes a good case that, for all the titles and the committee and the talk about doing what’s right, most government policy is the result of a combination of stupidity and needless aggression.  As played by Capaldi, Malcolm has no ideology or core beliefs.  He simply makes sure that the Prime Minister gets what he wants.

And if that means going to war, then Malcolm will do whatever it takes to push Britain into war.

Director Armando Iannucci is probably best known for creating two political comedies, the Thick of It and Veep.  And while I’ve never seen The Thick Of It, I absolutely love Veep.  From what I’ve read, all three projects share the same fictional universe.  (Capaldi’s Malcolm was the main character on The Thick Of It.)

Though, actually, I think it’s debatable just how fictional that universe is.  Ultimately, In The Loop is probably one of the most plausible satires that I’ve ever seen.