REVIEW: “The Post”

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Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is set in an era when the media (generally speaking) wasn’t egregiously compromised by the political pulls of the left or the right. It was a time (more often than today) when principle took precedent over ideology and the media took seriously the role of equally holding all elected officials accountable to the people. There is far less of that today, although I’m not sure Spielberg and company would agree with me.

“The Post” starts in 1965 with war analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) discovering government deception concerning Vietnam policy and progress. The story bolts forward a few years with Ellsberg stealing classified documents that reveal years of misinformation by the government dating all the way back to the Truman administration. He leaks the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times who run a front page expose before having their story shut down by a court injunction.

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All of that is setup for the meat of the story which takes place in 1971, Washington D.C. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) has inherited The Washington Post newspaper following her husband’s suicide, but serving as its publisher and president has been a tough ride. Not counting her own personal lack of confidence, she’s also forced to navigate several obstacles from insecure board members to investors uncomfortable with a woman running the company. For the bulk of the film Spielberg does a good job tapping into the current red-hot women’s issues. It’s later that he moves from effectively showing us the inequality to spelling it out for us. But more on that later.

Her go-getter editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) knows there is more to uncover so he sends his crack assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (a really good Bob Odenkirk) to track down the New York Times’ source. And when sensitive documents fall into their lap, Katharine must decide whether to let Bradlee print the story risking incarceration and the livelihood of her paper.

Spielberg deftly bounces between Katharine’s personal journey and Bradlee’s newsroom. Both are given plenty of time to unfold and develop. As you would expect, Streep is very good and completely in her element. It isn’t an extraordinary performance, but it’s work from her that we sometimes take for granted. Hanks is a different story. It’s not that he’s bad here. He feels off – as if he’s really stretching to sell us a character that Jason Robards did better (and won an Oscar for) 42 years ago.

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Katharine’s stirring story and the thrilling newsroom drama come together in a tense and powerful meeting of the minds (and wills) which Spielberg unpacks to near perfection. But then something happens in the final fifteen minutes or so. In rapid succession the film begins dropping one corny, contrived ‘movie moment’ after another. Storytelling gives way to speechifying and the movie’s themes (previously explored through the story itself) are propped up by glaringly obvious scenes manufactured to the point of phoniness. And then you have Spielberg often straining to make a connection between the Nixon and Trump administration. Again, the material is there, but Spielberg sometimes feels the need to speak for it.

“The Post” does far more right than wrong. For a good three-quarters of his movie Spielberg brilliantly balanced two very different but equally enthralling stories. And for a while I was seeing it as a wonderful “All the President’s Men” companion piece. It’s just a shame the final act resorts to cheap scenes and sappy speeches that seem directly aimed at Oscar voters. But as his movie had already shown, Spielberg didn’t need all of that and the bulk of the picture is an enthralling experience.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Suffragette”

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suf·fra·gette (/səfrəˈjet/) noun • historical

a woman seeking the right to vote through organized protest.

That definition is true yet in no way does it adequately define the women and the movement they sparked in the late 19th and early 20th century. In Great Britain the suffragette movement became a force sometimes blurring the lines between lawful and militant protesting. Militant groups such as the WSPU led by Emmeline Pankhurst went from picketing, protesting, and hunger strikes to arson and bombings. While their tactics may have sometimes crossed the line, the rights they fought for were important and deserved. It was a complex time.

“Suffragette”, the new film from director Sarah Gavron, sets itself in this period and seeks to tell the story of passionate women standing up for their right to vote. But movies like this can be tricky. When you have a wealth of rich historical source material you automatically have a story to tell. It also offers a chance to deliver a powerful message. Movies have often stumbled when trying to balance these two creative opportunities.

The story is told through predominantly fictional characters but with a few historical figures included. Instead of telling a specific historical account, writer Abi Morgan creates several characters and reveals that period through their eyes and their experiences. The always absorbing Carey Mulligan serves as our main lens. She plays Maud Watts a wife and mother who also works long, strenuous hours as a laundress.

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It’s London in 1912. The suffragettes have only begun to make waves. Maud first witnesses the movement through street speakers and storefront vandalism. But her interest is mainly influenced by the inequalities she experiences at her workplace. She is also encouraged by the infectious enthusiasm of her friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Maud becomes more involved as she meets inspirational women like Helena Bonham Carter’s Emily and Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst.

Wisely, Gavron and Morgan don’t make Maud’s decisions easy. We get a compelling internal struggle and there is a constant wrestling with the potential consequences of going too far. The decisions are made even more difficult by her unsupportive husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and the thoughts of being separated from her young son. Add to that the dogged pursuit of the government assigned Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson). As the movie progresses that struggle evolves in a way that is very organic and satisfying.

The character and the struggle mainly works thanks to Mulligan. This is such an understated and subdued performance that plays in perfect sync with the character. She skillfully articulates every feeling and raw emotion. It’s no glamorous role. Mulligan sports a tired and worn face and she often expresses a convincing sense of physical and emotional exhaustion. It’s impressive watching her transition from a woman sadly content with the hand she has been dealt in life to a woman driven to action by that very same hand. It’s a fine performance.

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Then there is Meryl Streep. In a bit of promotional manipulation you would think Streep has a significant role. Actually she does not. It’s basically a glorified cameo. It’s almost as if they were positioning her for the obligatory Oscar nomination she gets every year (apparently no one feels “Ricki and the Flash” is going to do it for her). She’s not bad here, but there is nothing to her small appearance that stands out either.

Where “Suffragette” stumbles is in the omission department. The film looks at Maud’s life and tells her story well. But at the same time it wants to represent an important historical struggle and does so in broad strokes. Much of the struggle is thinly represented namely the motivations behind voter suppression and the political manipulation and posturing. So much in this area could have been explored. Instead we just get highlights. There is also the ending which is fine in concept but came sudden and abrupt.

“Suffragette” dances in numerous shades of gray both in the actions of the women shown in the film and in the film’s opinion about them. But it certainly doesn’t waver in its message about the plight of women during a time that wasn’t that long ago. Regardless of any hiccups, the film deals in powerful and important themes and does so in a way that can’t be ignored. There is such a great sense of time and place and falling into the life of Maud is effortless for us. It also helps to have a great performance by Carey Mulligan – one that could easily earn her a nomination come Oscar time.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “August: Osage County”

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“August: Osage County” is a hard pill to swallow. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and could be categorized as a dysfunctional family drama with pinches of dark comedy. It features a star-studded cast led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and a premise that may have a lot of appeal to some audiences. But underneath all of the big acting from big stars lies a coarse and abrasive film that never knows when to pull back the reins. It ends up being a movie I could never wrap my arms around.

Tracy Letts (who also penned the play) writes the screenplay and John Wells (better known for his television work) directs the film. It’s set in Osage County, Oklahoma during a sweltering hot August. Violet (Streep) is a mean and contentious women suffering from mouth cancer and a heavy addiction to pain pills. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) is a calmer sort who seeks refuge in his books and liquor. One day Beverly hires a caretaker for his wife and soon after disappears.

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Distraught over her husband’s disappearance, Violet calls in her family and a parade of family dysfunction follows. First to arrive is her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper). Shortly after, Violet’s three daughters come. Barbara (Julia Roberts) is a shrill carbon copy of her mother. She’s at odds with her mom for leaving home and moving to Colorado. Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the spacy middle daughter who hasn’t been home in years. And there is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the youngest daughter and the only one who lives close to home. Each of these characters have a wheelbarrow full of flaws and baggage that all comes into play as the film moves along.

But if that assortment of maladjusted individuals wasn’t enough, we also have Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) who apparently has an eye for younger women and their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) who is bearing the fruits of their horrible parenting. Then there is Karen’s fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a phoney and moral-free Florida businessman. Oh and then there is Charles and Mattie Fae’s awkward son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) who may have a weird little secret.

It’s almost impossible to like any of these people. With the exception of the caregiver, practically every character reveals an appalling secret, spits out hateful insults, or does something vile. And the film is relentless. It bludgeons you to death with one dysfunctional family scene after another. I found it to be smothering. The story never allows any breathing room or provides any variation with its characters. And the constant barrage of bad behavior and disgraceful revelations is a bit ridiculous. It’s as if Letts wants to trump one disgraceful act or insult with another. And so on and so on…

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Again, the cast is a laundry list of big names and the performances are good. However many of the scenes are so big and the characters so loud that it can be difficult to really appreciate the performances. It’s one of those cases where the material hurts what the actors are doing. Streep is fine as the venom-tongued Violet but she is so big and brash. It’s definitely how the character is written but Streep does her share of scene chewing. Julia Roberts has been applauded for her work but it too is a loud and showy performance. Roberts is never overmatched by the character and she shows brilliance in some scenes. But the character is crassly written and some of her dialogue is so over the top. The other performances aren’t getting the same attention, but they’re generally good when the screenplay allows them to be.

I’ve heard that the stage version of “August: Osage County” is very good. Sadly I don’t think it has translated well to the big screen. This is a crude and unyielding adaptation that has a powerful and potent potential. The idea is appealing and every so often we get glimpses of what I hoped the film to be. Unfortunately I was put off by these characters, their endless dysfunction, and their profane spite. This was a tiresome watch and tough movie for me to endure. It’s a shame because with this much talent I was expecting more.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

Oscar – The morning after…

Well it has come and gone. The 2012 Oscars seemed to get here in a hurry and be done just as quick. As usual for the more recent Oscars, there were few surprises. Most of the “Big 6” went as I predicted and the only real surprises were with the technical awards. But overall it was a fun night. Here’s a few thoughts…

Billy Crystal hosted the 2012 show after the Eddie Murphy debacle (or should I say the Brett Ratner debacle) and he did a solid job. Unlike last year’s odd and sometimes uncomfortable hosting from James Franco and Anne Hathaway, this was more grounded but still quite funny. Crystal used several tried-and-true antics such as the song detailing the Best Picture Nominees and the “What they’re thinking” segment. I found them and several of Crystal’s adaptive one-liners to be very funny. Several of the presenters provided some good laughs including Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Chris Rock (I was surprised, too), and of course Robert Downey, Jr. Oh, and c’mon Academy! Am I the only one who thinks that Downey, Jr. would be the funniest Oscars host of all time? Sign him up.

“Hugo” ended the night with five Oscars. It was awarded for its technical achievements and it’s hard for me to argue with that. “A Seperation” won for Best Foreign Language film which was followed by a rather unusual acceptance speech from director Asghar Farhadi. “The Descendants” won Best Adapted Screenplay and I was thrilled that “Midnight in Paris” won for Best Original Screenplay. Of course Woody Allen wasn’t there but did we ever expect him to be?

The supporting categories went exactly as expected. Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Christopher Plummer (Beginners) had already been christened the winners well before the ceremony began and that’s exactly how things played out. Spencer gave one of the most genuine and emotional acceptance speeches of the night and Plummer became the oldest Oscar winner ever. It was good seeing Nick Nolte recognized with a nomination even though I’m not sure he knew where he was last night.

Meryl Streep won Best Actress for her performance in “The Iron Lady”. That category had turned into a two person race and I really felt that Viola Davis had a good chance to win. But Streep was awarded for a performance that certainly outweighed the rather mundane and mixed reviewed movie. The Oscar media had tried their best to sell the whole Clooney (“The Descendants”) versus Pitt (“Moneyball”) Best Actor race. But as I expected (and hoped), Jean Dujardin won the Oscar for his wonderful performance in “The Artist”. Working with several more handicaps than the other nominees, Dujardin nailed his performance and deserved the award. His acceptance speech and subsequent dance showed his enthusiasm and I found myself applauding from my recliner.

The night only got better for “The Artist”. Michael Hazanavicius won the Best Director Oscar which is almost always a sign of which film will win Best Picture. Last night was no different. Hazanavicius’ gutsy project won Best Picture and I have no problem with it. While I was personally rooting for “The Tree of Life”, this was a case where the Academy got it right. “The Artist” was a nostalgic but touching film that felt plucked right out of the silent movie era. I loved seeing it win.

So while it was a fairly predictable night, it was a good night. The stars played dress-up and movie fans witnessed new films and new performances added to that Valhalla of motion picture history. I went 5 for 6 in the “Big 6” categories so that speaks to the shows lack of suspense. But there were some genuinely funny moments and some good movies received their due.