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The Breadwinner

Posted : 7 months, 2 weeks ago on 28 February 2018 09:28 (A review of The Breadwinner)

Seeing Cartoon Saloon attached to a new animated film perks my interest up just as much as seeing one coming out from Laika. Cartoon Saloon produced what are two of my favorite modern animated films, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, so seeing their geometric animation style in the promotional images for The Breadwinner got my eyebrow raised. Seeing Kells’ co-director, Nora Twomey, venturing out on her own was a plus, as was the move away from Ireland and into Afghanistan. The Breadwinner did not disappoint me, but I acknowledge that there’s a certain thinness of narrative and refusal to go deeper with its material.

 

These two points are valid criticisms of the film, but they weren’t enough to deter my enjoyment. Sure, I’d love to learn how Parvana’s cross-dressing impacted her on a deeper level, and found the story-within-a-story to be too obvious and route, but there’s still plenty to recommend and admire here. Perhaps a story of standing up to gender inequality meaning potential death is too much for an animated film to carry, but I respect the ambition to tell this story in this particular way.

 

The power of telling a story, of harnessing and controlling a narrative is the life blood of The Breadwinner, as Parvana’s father instills this lesson into her early on before the lesson eventually becomes a reoccurring theme. Parvana tells a story throughout, a fairy tale of a prince encountering numerous roadblocks and horrors, that functions as her making sense of a tragedy that happened off-screen long before we met the family. Although this is a bit of a great irony as the whole of The Breadwinner is creakiest in terms of narrative. A film about the power of storytelling is messiest in telling its own story, oh well.

 

But look at that animation! Bathed in warm golds and brown, with the occasional vibrantly bright colorful embellishment, the look of it is as enticing and gorgeous as Kells or Song of the Sea. The story-within-the-story segments are animated in an entirely different style that’s no less pleasing as they appear like felt cutouts of angular objects moving in a way that suggests heavily-caffeinated marionettes. Despite a uniform house style, this Cartoon Saloon release doesn’t look entirely like the other two and develops its own character and variation of the house style.

 

And even when the story falters, Parvana is a compelling heroine, a young girl of thwarted ambition and intelligence struggling against a suffocating ruling order. Her rebellion could have been better fleshed out, but she’s always a figure worth rooting for. It’s refreshing to watch an animated film about a young girl that doesn’t involve musical interludes, gimmicky sidekicks, or anything typically princess-y. She’s a real person with flaws, dreams, and struggles.

 

The power and beauty of The Breadwinner is in the broad strokes, like the bold lines and shapes that animate its characters. When a trip to the water well is fraught with more tension than the entirety of Dunkirk, then you know your film, flaws and all, is working remarkably well. I continued to look forward to what Cartoon Saloon releases next.    



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The Big Sick

Posted : 7 months, 2 weeks ago on 28 February 2018 08:55 (A review of The Big Sick (2017))

Sometimes truth is infinitely stranger than fiction. Case in point, look at the romantic comedy interrupted that is The Big Sick. Loosely based on the real life courtship between co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is a thoughtful examination of the ties that bind us together, be they familial or chosen.

 

We begin in the normal romantic comedy formula: boy (Nanjiani playing a variation of himself) meets-cute with girl (Zoe Kazan), complications arise first in the form of different backgrounds then in the form of a medically induced coma, an action that causes those looking for a routine rom-com payout to get a serious case of blue balls. Into this emotional turbulence comes the girl’s parents, and The Big Sick takes us into more dramatic and pricklier territory than we initially anticipated.

 

But yes, it’s still funny. Maybe not gut-busting funny, but in a more low key way that charms you with its accurate observations of place or the minutia of its various characters. Although, given Kumail’s aspirations of standup comedy, we do get plenty of behind-the-scenes riffs between him and his standup buddies. These scenes act as breaks of levity in-between some of the more turbulent passages as Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham lovingly eviscerate each other about craft and their work.

 

Yet those passages of emotional turbulence still shimmer with comedic possibility, even if the shifts sometimes get a little abrupt or harsh. There’s the central conflict of Emily’s eventual medically induced coma, but there’s also plenty of material about cultural conflicts and the difficulties of the vagaries of romance and maturity. Not only is Kumail stuck between his family’s Pakistani background and demands, his own comfortable adoption of Americana, but the intrusion and growing relationship that develops between himself and Emily’s parents.

 

Those parents are brilliantly played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Hunter is the tough but loving southern military daughter while Romano is the more awkward embodiment of dad-humor and prevalent oversharing. The two of them together manage to find a rhythm that feels like a long-term relationship, and the tense intimacy they form with Kumail is an interesting wrinkle in a film that’s full of them. The three of them turn what should be a nearly improbable situation and twist it into something that feels organic and structurally sound. It isn’t just the semi-autobiographical elements at play here, but a deep knowledge that tragedy or chaos makes for strange bedfellows.

 

The Big Sick finds a sweet spot and works it over for all its worth, which as it turns out, is quite a lot. Not just a crowd-pleasing comedy, not just a charming story of guy-gets-girl, but something richer and deeper even when its tonal shifts are sometimes too jarring, The Big Sick is a wonderful little movie. Perhaps a bit too long, as is just about every other modern comedy, but still packed with truths, laughs, and a pleasing interest in glimpsing the pain underneath the escapism.  



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The Florida Project

Posted : 7 months, 2 weeks ago on 28 February 2018 05:30 (A review of The Florida Project)

On the periphery of Disney World there’s a little motel called Magic Castle, and it is here that we begin our story. It’s the summer, and we’re quickly introduced to Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, a stunner of a child actor’s performance), a six-year-old heavily interested in playtime, imagination, and performing various mischievous acts without the forethought of where these actions will lead. The Florida Project will place us directly into her point-of-view and journey, and it’s an emotional ride of great rewards.

 

Moonee lives with her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite, another great find), at the hotel, and she quickly meets up with the new girl at the motel, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), after spitting on Jancey’s mom’s car. Moonee gets in trouble, Halley encourages Jancey and Moonee to be friends, and we’re off from there. There’s not a solid story structure to The Florida Project, we merely sit back and observe various episodes in Moonee’s life.

 

We watch many things occur from Moonee’s perspective, several of which we can fill in the gaps as adults whereas the details appear mystifying to her, and observe the human need for denial in full activity. Various scenes portray the bittersweet reality of these characters with a clear-eyed empathy for their humanity and the unspoken, largely unknown reasons for how and why they ended up here. There’s a refreshing lack of judgment as these characters scramble to survive, protect their kids, and maintain some semblance of dignity and humanity.

 

Orbiting it all is the kindly manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe) one of many adult figures trying desperately to keep the tragedy of life at bay from the children occupying the slum motel. He performs his normal duties with lived-in ache and tiredness, but also emerges as a fatherly figure to the various denizens of the Magic Castle. Dafoe develops this subtlety and with great compassion for this man. For an actor of his stature to appear in a film populated by unknowns and first-timers could easily dip into star vanity, but no so here. Dafoe develops a rapport with them, and grounds himself into a man that expresses a decency that feels forged out of hardship and personal pain and tragedy.

 

His protectiveness is never more apparent than running off a man that’s hinted at being a child predator, and his rage is palpable. Even better is a scene where he runs interference between Halley, having turned to prostitution to provide for herself and Moonee after losing her meager support system, and a john. Bobby acts as a human shield between the two of them while Halley, in a bit that’s nearing slapstick but still nonjudgmental about her, telegraphs her rage and contempt through her face and flashing the john the middle finger. He not only diffuses the situation but does so in a way that’s entirely protective of Halley and Moonee. Bobby is the supportive through line of The Florida Project, an emblem of the protections in place to try and let these kids just be kids.

 

If Moonee understands any of these developments, you wouldn’t know it from her persistent need to play and imagine. She’s aware enough of the cultural currency at play here to know she’s not going to Disney World itself any time soon, but she finds spaces where she can pretend that they’re various locations or attractions from the theme park. Director Sean Baker allows for Moonee’s vivid imagination to play out as a nearly holy communion with something larger than herself. It’s beautiful how he simply allows her to be in these spaces and observe where her spirit and mind will take her.

 

Baker also manages to capture a feeling of transience to these imaginings that extends to the surroundings. Earlier in the film, Moonee and the other children say goodbye to one of their own that’s moving away. While moving away, his father makes him give away his toys to the other kids because there’s no room in the car, and the kid stands by with a curious expression on his face as these totems of his childhood and time spent here are given away. He’s learned something about the ephemerality of life despite the promise of replacing them all with brand new ones. It won’t be the same, nothing in life ever is.

 

This feeling carries us into the final moments of the film which play out in a curious emotional space. With Halley and Moonee being separated from each other, briefly they’re routinely told, after someone ratted on Halley’s escorting, we witness Moonee’s rage and confusion as to what’s happening. Moonee knows that something dark is descending upon her, something that will shatter the delicate nature of childhood innocence and precociousness. In a flight of desperation we watch her run with Jancey to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Or did they? Is this scene real or the most fully-realized bit of daydreaming we’ve witnessed to this point?

 

The literal truth of the scene is nearly impossible to read. She very well could have run off, but I prefer to think of this as a last-ditch effort, a moment of clearly thought-out self-preservation of her innocence, rather than any kind of literal truth. It’s a complicated moment of heartbreak and joy, underscoring the transient nature of childhood innocence, and further underlining the socioeconomic structures at play here. It’s a perfect ending to one of 2017’s best films.



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Molly's Game

Posted : 7 months, 2 weeks ago on 28 February 2018 04:12 (A review of Molly's Game)

For better or for worse, Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin with the firehose going at full blast. If you’re a fan of Sorkin and his many –isms, then you’ll be in for a cinematic treat as there’s nearly two and a half hours of rapid-fire dialog to get through. If, like me, you’re something of an apostate about his writing, then prepare for a mixture of some good, some bad, and a pure distillation of Sorkin with nothing to muzzle him.

 

It’s an odd story for Sorkin to throw in for his directorial debut, but at least he’s got Jessica Chastain to deliver his lengthy verbal passages, narration, and try to keep your attention for the whole time. Chastain brings a fiery intensity, subtle bits of humor, and icy intelligence to the material, and turns Sorkin’s writing into a one-woman opera. It is one hell of a performance from an actress that has given us a bevy of impressive performances in a short amount of time, and it continues on with her penchant for mercurial and chameleonic tricks. Even when the script gives her some clunkers to deliver, or even questionable thoughts to spit out, she nearly makes it all work.

 

There’s still some shocks to be found in Molly’s Game, namely in Michael Cera. The harmless looking funnyman takes on a rare villainous role here that displays a swirling undercurrent of malice that hasn’t been tapped into before. So praise goes to Sorkin for looking at the dweeby kid from Arrested Development and seeing the potential for something more and deeper in him. Hidden within Molly’s Game are several small nuggets of shocking casting choices, pieces of dialog, or scenarios that make it zing when you think it’s going to zag, and they make this overly long film worth the journey.  

 

Pity the same can’t be said for Kevin Costner as Molly’s dad, a demanding and exacting bastard that disappears for a long stretch only to show up at the end of the narrative to explain to Molly the “why” of her. This is Sorkin at his worst impulses and instincts, and Costner can’t seem to overcome the hurdle and makes an already unpleasant scene into an exercise in tedium and contrivance. Molly’s character has been displayed enough up to this point that this scene feels mildly superfluous and smug. Even when he’s trying to avoid it, Sorkin can’t help himself from mansplaining to his female characters.

 

The major problem with Molly’s Game is one of indulgence. Sorkin’s verbal pyrotechnics are already enough, but allowing him to director is just too much. Nothing about the story feels or plays out in a naturalistic manner even when Sorkin’s camera plays out as such. Then there’s his history of treating life and his characters as a meritocracy, and this is evident from the opening moments when Molly gives us a recitation of her résumé and never lets up from there. At times, a certain feeling of self-parody creeps into the material, most likely unintentional but it’s there.



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All the Money in the World

Posted : 7 months, 3 weeks ago on 24 February 2018 07:02 (A review of All the Money in the World)

The biggest problem with All the Money in the World is that its anchoring presence, that of billionaire J. Paul Getty, is just not interesting enough as presented here. He’s clearly meant to a figure of mythological proportions, and Christopher Plummer is valiantly trying to play him as such, but the rest of the film is lacking a certain something about it to really sell this idea. Perhaps its leftover messiness from having to quickly reshoot so much of it, or maybe it’s just that this was always a heavily manufactured affair with clear examples of artistic liberty taken with the material.

 

Then there’s the main problem of Mark Wahlberg. All the Money in the World is a three-legged beast that depends on the performances of all three main actors to work properly, and two of them are doing a great job. Wahlberg is a perfectly fine comedic actor, but he’s shown time and time again that he’s limited in dramatic roles. This feels outside of his range of emotive capabilities as his biggest choice to display seriousness is whether or not he removes his glasses. Michelle Williams and Plummer outgun him, and the delicate balancing act necessary for some scenes are thrown off by his stilted line readings and frowning serious face.

 

There’s also the problem of the repetitive nature of a large chunk of the film. We get so many false leads, hysteric crying phone calls, negotiations, and near misses that you can guess the exact structure of the next several scenes before they’ve even finished, or started. Things play out almost as caricatures, of icy wealth, of band of brothers criminals, of a ferocious mother, that you lose any real emotion or complexity to the narrative. All the Money in the World just becomes another handsomely made but inert Ridley Scott film, and we’ve been getting an awful lot of those lately.



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The Disaster Artist

Posted : 7 months, 3 weeks ago on 24 February 2018 06:39 (A review of The Disaster Artist)

The Disaster Artist is pitched somewhere between star vanity project and reminder of what a gifted comedic actor it’s lead is, so think of it as something that encapsulates James Franco as a whole. It becomes something of an ego-stroking endeavor, as just about anything Franco touches inevitably does, and wants it both ways, to both laugh at and with its protagonist, but it’s still an accomplished little film in its own minor ways.

 

We hardly leave its main star, and if we do, it is to focus on Greg Sestero, played by Dave Franco, James’ younger brother. Yep, The Disaster Artist is both a family affair and an entertaining form of filmic masturbation as James Franco both pays tribute and parodies the making of a cult classic while clearly trying to pitch his own film as a ready for primetime player. It’s a tricky balancing act, and it’s not entirely one that comes off successfully by the end. The Disaster Artist has a parade of big name cameos that feel like favors called in at best, and at worst, like distractions from a narrative that’s gone routine.

 

Yet the relationship between the two men is one that’s fascinating when we’re allowed to merely sit back and watch it unfold. Sestero unironically finds Tommy Wiseau a magnetic and enthralling presence, and he’s not off the mark. For all of his questionable skill levels, Wiseau is a strangely hypnotic figure with his mane of greasy, unruly black hair, eternally heavy-lidded eyes, and accent that sounds like the Eastern Block by way of Burbank. If what Franco imagines Wiseau’s acting class exercise of the “Stella” monolog from A Streetcar Named Desire is true, it’s not an inaccurate summation of the piece in a skewed perspective. Even if it’s not true, it is still a wonderfully eccentric moment that makes us understand what Sestero sees in Wiseau that everyone else finds shocking, uncomfortable, or laughable.

 

But as the story goes on and we near the hellish production of The Room and the premiere, we find ourselves turning away from sympathetic feelings and more towards pointing and laughing. Wiseau is something of a tragic clown throughout, but the ending turns things a little too sour. There is something to be said for bad movies leaving as strong and lasting an impression as good ones, but The Disaster Artist isn’t smart enough to go there. It mainly wants to be a oneiric totem to James Franco the enervating artistic polymath, but it also reminds us that he’s best when sticking to comedy.  



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I, Tonya

Posted : 7 months, 3 weeks ago on 21 February 2018 08:14 (A review of I, Tonya)

There’s an uneasy tension laced throughout I, Tonya, as if the film is replicating the complicated athletic moves of its focus and it just as often fumbles the landing. Yet there’s still something absorbing and enthralling about it way it throws everything out there, class warfare, ambition, athleticism, domestic abuse, jealousy. It doesn’t all play out in harmony, but there’s a trio of lead performances here that rank among the best of 2017.

 

I, Tonya contains a wraparound faux-documentary framing of the events, and allows for events to proceed in often contradictory manners as the various characters give their insight and point-of-view. From Tonya Harding, as envisioned here, we’re witnessing an underdog sports story, a moment in time for her to overcome poverty, domestic abuse, and classicism to become a great Olympic-level athlete. Things get decidedly more complicated once we factor in the points of view of her mother, ex-husband, trainer, and various others with minimal to great insight on Harding and the controversy swirling around her.

 

At times this plays out in a thrilling combination of emotionally visceral terror and darkest of black comedy, like watching LaVona Goldman, Tonya’s mother, using her cigarillos like an extension of her hand to make emphatic point at a young Tonya about not fraternizing with her rivals. But then the film tips into uncomfortable or awkward territory, like watching LaVona kick out a chair from Tonya at a different moment. Sometimes I, Tonya goes for daring leaps and sticks the landing and other times it wipes out in a spectacularly messy fashion, but you gotta respect its ambition.

 

This uneasiness regarding Harding’s domestic abuse – first with her mother, then with her husband – colors much of the rest of the film. For all of the pathos that Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan generate with the material, the film turns some of it into a punchline. This creates a weird feeling where the tone goes sideways and flirts with treating such serious, volatile material with flippancy.

 

Everything works much better when we’re stuck in Harding’s mindset and we understand the world through her eyes. Robbie’s portrayal doesn’t engender or demand sympathy for Harding, but instead lets us understand how persistent abuse, a lack of education, and other issues informed her. We witness her flailing about and not focusing enough with her athletic skills and gifts, letting them go to waste or being frivolous with her training. Harding becomes a frustrating figure because she distinctly lacks self-reflection and demonstrates a massive inability to accept her own culpability or blame for her life. She’s a perpetual victim, and Robbie proves her beauty and charisma aren’t the lone reasons why she’s been on such a career upswing, but pretty wrapping for an actress that’s demonstrated an incredible range in a short amount of time.

 

Just as good are Allison Janney as Harding’s monstrous mother and Stan as her abusive ex-husband. They’re colorful, showy supporting roles that allow both actors to alternate between going broad when we’re in Harding’s perspective to more nuanced people when we’re in their own. The two of them become the twin poles of Harding’s life, and frequently battle each other and label the other as toxic in a bit of cognitive dissonance that’s both terrifying and humorous.

 

That’s something of a reflection of the film as a whole, cognitive dissonance that’s both terrifying and humorous, as the film wants to implicate the audience, the media, and everyone else in the tabloid-ready sinew of the story, but it doesn’t always land that tricky landing. When it does, I, Tonya is a gloriously twisted affair, and when it doesn’t it becomes deeply uncomfortable. There’s a lot of meat here, even if the aftertaste is occasionally too bitter it’s still a dish worth dining upon.  



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Loving Vincent

Posted : 7 months, 3 weeks ago on 21 February 2018 03:45 (A review of Loving Vincent)

Proof that an exciting concept is not enough to build a movie off of when you forget to populate with something beyond stimulating visuals. Loving Vincent is more of a film’s theory than an actuality, and it borrows artistic ambition and merit by piggybacking onto van Gogh’s work. Paintings that exude vitality, life, and passion like Starry Night become merely wallpaper to a tedious story that’s an approximation of coming of age story and limp murder mystery populated by characters who exist entirely to provide biographical info dumps.

 

Loving Vincent is an animated film created in the style of Vincent van Gogh, combining both his own masterpieces and newly created pieces by artistic collaborators hired by the directors. If you watch the entire film on mute, then it becomes a gold star classic for the ages as it moves with large swaths of color combinations in dramatic tension or romantically sweeping across the frame. It’s the story that sinks the whole thing.

 

For a film titled after the genius artist, Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo exist in the film as mere concepts and not as characters. This is a pity as they are endlessly fascinating persons. Instead, we’re stuck with Douglas Booth’s Armand Roulin as he tries to deliver the last letter of Vincent’s, meets up with several people that knew van Gogh during his final days, and begins to believe in various conspiracies theories about the artist’s death. Was it a murder or a suicide? The film presents unconvincing evidence for the former before finally conceding that it more than likely was the latter.

 

Shackling van Gogh’s gorgeous, mysterious artwork to such a non-involving story results in a film that feels only half-formed. Loving Vincent quickly turns from glorious achievement to middling exercise to, finally, a dull copy-and-paste affair. It’s a series of beautiful images in search of a compelling story, and a compelling story was right there all along in the emotional turbulence in the brief lives of Vincent and Theo.



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Lady Bird

Posted : 8 months ago on 15 February 2018 08:40 (A review of Lady Bird)

The full complexity of a mother/daughter relationship gets a workout in Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s debut as a writer-director. It’s a disarming charmer, and one that’s fully committed towards narrative sympathy for its variety of characters. It’s equally likely to make you laugh as it is to make you cry, and sometimes it manages to switch between the two poles all in the same scene so masterfully that you barely noticed it happening.

 

This dichotomy is there right from the opening scene. Christine, who has dubbed herself Lady Bird for no particular given reason other than that her ambitions are as scattershot as they are gigantic, and her mother have completed both a college visit and listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape. As they wipe away the tears from their faces, Lady Bird squirms for the radio and distraction while her mother asks that they sit in the emotion of what they’ve just heard. This somehow escalates into an all-out verbal assault from both parties before Lady Bird throws herself out of the car.

 

Family tensions are built upon innocuous moments turning into aggressive fights or chances to air grievances, and Lady Bird creates a metric ton for her family throughout. Lady Bird is at that particular age where you’re trying to shed the selfishness and impulsivity of the teenage years and grow into the more mature adult version of yourself, and those years are rife with fraught emotional upheavals. The hormones practically drip off the screen as she discovers how underwhelming losing your virginity can be, how it’s sometimes harder to breakup (and makeup) with friends than lovers, and that your parents are real people and not monolithic beings.

 

Gerwig assembles a cast that any director would be wise to envy. There’s Saoirse Ronan in the central role, and she’s developing into one of the best actresses of her generation with a range that’s impressive and an emotional openness and expressivity that’s refreshing. She begins as the definition of adolescent pique, and we witness her transformation into a more thoughtful, mature version of herself. Much of this is accomplished through Ronan’s physical choices as she seems to grow into her body’s lanky features as the film progresses. It’s a subtle choice but a smart one.

 

Just as great is Laurie Metcalf as her mother. Lady Bird really exists on the strengths and believability of this central relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf alternate between passive-aggressive spats and stopping cold to fawn over pawn shop finds. Metcalf’s mother clearly loves her daughter even as she sometimes stumbles over her expressions with aggressive jabs or misplaced slights. She’s a psychiatric nurse frequently working doubles and doing her best to keep her family together. There’s a touching scene where Metcalf is witnessed scrawling goodbye notes the night before Lady Bird is about to leave for college, each deemed not good enough to express her love for her daughter and thrown into a pile.

 

Metcalf and Ronan make their mother/daughter duo feel lived in and real in their numerous scenes together. Family relationships are complicated on a good day, and Lady Bird never shies away from this fact. Look at how the father figure tries to play peace keeper and good cop knowing full well how each of them will reaction to the various scenarios presented in the course of the film. Tracy Letts, one of many gifted Broadway actors Gerwig pilfered to fill in the supporting parts, is a master of minimalist acting choices. He clearly loves his family, but his depression causes him to retreat within himself and leave everyone slightly adrift too often. Letts expresses this quality through his body language and halting diction.

 

We understand these characters so well because Gerwig refuses to judge them. Look at Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, a theater geek she catches kissing another boy. He knows he’s done her wrong and comes to her with both an apology and a tear-filled confession about how his difficulty in reconciling his queerness with his Catholic faith. They hug while he begs her not to tell anyone as he knows his family will react badly, and she agrees to keep his secret. She even mentions that he’s still her friend later in the film. Gerwig never turns the situation into something grander or worse than it needs to be, and she asks that we give both of these character empathy as they flail about trying to figure out this whole growing up business.

 

There’s genuine tenderness here, and Lady Bird emerges as a great debut from an actor turned director. If this is what Gerwig is capable of at her first try, then I’m really excited about where she’s going to go from here. As someone who went to Catholic school for a brief period, had an occasionally flinty relationship with my mom, and participated in theater, Lady Bird struck some very specific notes with me. I found it insightful, touching, and funny in all the best ways.



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The Post

Posted : 8 months ago on 15 February 2018 05:30 (A review of The Post)

Other than a brief detour into Roald Dahl’s literary work, Steven Spielberg seems particularly obsessed with exploring American values in his recent films. Lincoln looked at politics in action, Bridge of Spies was a Cold War thriller, and The Post delves into the newspaper business, more specifically the constitutional rights of the free press. It’s a valiant argument for the validity and necessity of the free press, but The Post feels rushed and like a second draft pushed through to the finish line in order to make a political point during a chaotic time.

 

It’s not as if The Post doesn’t speak directly to our time in which the current political administration is all but declaring war on the press at every turn, but that this is a film that too often bluntly hammers its points when a work finessed caressing would do. The Post was filmed during the earlier months of 2017 and rushed through for an awards season release, and the hurried nature of the production shows at times. Not just in the script’s occasionally soundbite dialog, but in the ways that several characters merely exist as a well-known character actor doing their thing and as not much else.

 

It’s also in the ways that The Post underscores Kay Graham’s decision to publish the Pentagon papers as a heroic endeavor. Not that she doesn’t deserve it, but The Post’s rough draft nature treats every action and development in a life-or-death struggle with a largely unseen but oft mentioned enemy. Graham’s social position, many of the people the Pentagon papers pointed fingers at and painted in broadly negative lights were among her circle of friends and acquaintances, takes a large chunk of the film’s settings and drama. It’s almost too comfortable in these powerful circles, and some of the finger-wagging feels a little deflated as a result.

 

Still, there’s plenty to admire and love about The Post. There’s Meryl Streep’s performance where she finally plays a real person instead of an overacted monstrosity (August: Osage County) or a broadly comic creation (Florence Foster Jenkins). Her Graham is a woman slightly uncomfortable with the power she’s been given, not only as the owner of the Washington Post but with the choice to publish the Pentagon revelations or not. This is a Streep performance that you can get behind and root for, all fluttering anxieties spilling out in her nervous pauses and occasionally awkward diction.

 

Just as good is Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, all sweaty rumpled career-man in the newspaper business. His gruff voice and demands to elevate the Post beyond its minimal sphere of influence is a loving tribute to the cigar chomping editors that typically populate newsrooms in film. He’s aided by a staff of reporters played by some of the best under-sung actors in the business, Bob Odenkirk being the best of the supporting players. The love for the newsroom is infectious in scenes of them hovering over mountains of material and trying to not only make sense of it all, but to condense it into a digestible piece of reporting to the masses.

 

The Post is ultimately frustrating simply because it just feels so self-congratulatory. It knows it’s talking about an important subject matter, it has two beloved actors, a tony production value, and a prestige director, but it mistakes these things as enough when it should probe deeper. The Post most reminded me of a Capraesque drama about Americana, and it works at that level, but it had the potential to really probe deeper and speechify less.  



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