Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Post
Star Rating: 3.5/4

            The Post is a timeless film. It tells a story set in the past yet successfully appeals to the present. Everything that President Nixon attempted to achieve by punishing the press mirrors the actions of our current president with his ‘war on press.’ Steven Spielberg’s latest feature conveys how relevant that concept is by showing how several former presidents were involved in the cover-up of the Pentagon Papers before Nixon was ever elected. The bottom line is: no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office, the values this movie stresses will always be crucial to the American public.

            Primarily set in 1971, the basic premise centers on The Washington Post, specifically its publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and its editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). The business is failing after the suicide of Graham’s husband and is forced to appeal in stocks. However, mentions of the Pentagon Papers falling into the hands of their rivals, The New York Times, spreads. As soon as the Times publishes some of the papers’ contents detailing how the United States is actually losing in the Vietnam War while the public was being told otherwise by the government for at least twenty years, President Nixon bans them from publishing anymore of the papers. Graham and Bradlee see this as an opportunity to point out how Nixon’s decision violates the First Amendment and attempt to publish more despite realizing how Nixon may next threaten to convict them if they continue.

            Spielberg allows this movie to appeal to the present by commenting on the past yet showing optimism in the future ahead of us. With regards to the past, the era in which this movie is set was full of tension and paranoia, much like Nixon’s mindset, and the number of wide shots with a character on one side of the frame and another on the opposite have our eyes going left and right and back and forth as a representation of these feelings as the characters argue. One shot near the final act of the film has Graham walking while a line of women marvel at her presence. Graham smiles at them all and even opens the door to a discussion of feminism as Graham was the first female newspaper publisher in American history. We may be seeing more female reporters someday soon. As feminism and political conflicts form a bigger part of our circle, the resistance that is depicted in this film mirrors those that have come up in the past few years.

            All the actors are aware of the setting’s tension and wisely portray their roles in the middle of it all. Tom Hanks, for example, presumably takes a cue from a past role of his: Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks (2013). He played Disney in that film as a man trying not to lose his cool as the story continued and he does something similar with Bradlee in The Post as he learns more and tries to publish the papers, he recognizes the tension around him while trying to stay tough with his gritty voice. The anxiety of the entire situation is represented through Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, the man who managed to retrieve the papers for The Washington Post, but the movie belongs to Meryl Streep. She carries the movie with true grace and naturalness that we as an audience garner a real connection with her. When she starts to choke up, we start to choke up. We’re in for the ride no matter what because of her.

            The feel of the movie is also important if we are to oversee events of the 1970s. Thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, every environment looks as if it is of that decade, a quality which is crucial for other period films to be successful. The Post also evokes the same feeling as another related film All the President’s Men (1976). It aims to be a political thriller and it hits its mark with quick cuts and great editing transitions from Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar. Another way it accomplishes that feat is through the number of tracking shots. It makes it a fast-paced final product as the characters move around and allows us to navigate through the labyrinth of situations with them.

            Journalists in The Post are viewed as the protagonists and our heroes of the story. It can be hard to keep track of who’s who sometimes though but we still feel for them. The message is more resonating now due to President Donald Trump’s constant bullying and mockery of them because of his refusal to yield to any bad publicity of himself. John Williams’ score not only adds to the tension and give it a race-against-the-clock sense but it sounds so heroic and valiant that it reminded me of Hans Zimmer’s work from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy which only supports its claim.

            Overall, The Post functions like an op-ed piece of any newspaper. Its ideas are evident without being overly obvious. Government regulation of the press has been going on for years and the conflict between both sides still goes on today. Spielberg’s work has taken more political stances lately. Both Lincoln (2012) and Bridge of Spies (2015) focused on peace with others and the needlessness for any division. As a Democrat and good friend of former president Bill Clinton, Spielberg did endorse Clinton’s wife in the 2016 election. The Post does serve as part of a rebellion against President Trump which is why the line by Odenkirk’s character in the third act, “I’ve always wanted to be part of a small rebellion” may be the truest line of the entire film. Spielberg does too by showing how the rebellion that began years ago still persists today.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Star Rating: 3.5/4

            Star Wars: The Last Jedi does what the second chapter of any film trilogy should do. The filmmakers have presented its audiences with a suitable refutation for its characters while raising the stakes for them.

            I know some are going to be picky about reviews so here’s a brief spoiler-free plot summary: it takes place immediately where The Force Awakens (2015) left off. The rebellion, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) is having trouble leading counterattacks against Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order. Their forces start to dwindle as if they were in free fall. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found the M.I.A. Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a distant planet where he has been hiding for 30 years. Rey tries to convince him to teach her the ways of the Force so she can aid in the resistance, but he refuses, even after telling him of all the events from the last film. However, a little push from R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) changes his mind. And scene.

            Anyone reading this is hoping to hear the good of this film and fears that it has some bad qualities. It does have many good aspects to it but there are some things to point out. The film does feel quite long to sit through. Many storylines are occurring at the same time. One of them is a rebel ship continually being under fire by First Order forces even when the fleet is shielded. It makes me wonder: how long is this going to take? The next thing to mention is something questionable: the swearing. Yes, there is swearing, though not on the level of some other PG-13 rated movies, but for Star Wars standards, oh boy! All I remember is one swear word in Attack of the Clones (2002) and that’s it. I know these may not seem like big issues but maybe other fans will agree with me.

            Those are the drawbacks of the film but the rest deserves nothing but praise. The content of the film is similar to The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in terms of where the characters are in their arcs but the values of hope and hopelessness are emphasized to a greater extent when compared to previous installments. All the characters, including the new ones, have to wrestle between the good and bad sides of themselves and discover where they belong in those inner conflicts. Every actor in this film did so well conveying these concepts through their portrayals and were smart to know where their roles were in the series’ narrative and figuring out where they could go as it went on. On the contrary, Mark Hamill definitely stands out the most as he returns to the role that launched his career like the jump to light speed. He knows that Luke feels guilty for creating Kylo Ren and his skepticism to continue his journey is understandable, but he knows he needs a little push if he wants to do some good again.

            Another benefit is the editing by Bob Duscay. There are some scenes that are particularly resonating in terms of how it was assembled. One includes Kylo Ren attacking a rebel fleet and knowing that his mother, Leia, was on board. The scene faded back and forth between each character to show their emotion but the fade amplifies the mother-son connection as it shows the passage of time and even adds to Leia’s distraught. It even adds a level of disappointment Leia clearly feels and Kylo Ren is possibly acknowledging that. Two other scenes involve complete silence instantly after certain scenes of destruction which left me as stunned as those witnessing the event take place. For The Last Jedi, silence represents its theme of hopelessness.

            All this was led by Rian Johnson who steps into the director’s chair after J.J. Abrams. Johnson gives fans what they want: awesome action and gorgeous visual effects while having good character growth. He also adds a touch of nostalgia and tenderness to the final product as well and the most noticeable part is the presence of the late Carrie Fisher. This is the last film she was able to make before her passing almost exactly one year ago. It packs many emotions for the fans so just imagine what this brought for the cast and crew.

            I have a feeling Fisher would be proud. Fans will feel the same way and those who aren’t will find something special with The Last Jedi. The recent installments of the new Star Wars trilogy are turning out to be very fine additions to the franchise. With one more chapter to go in this series, let’s hope it closes the book nicely because it will be quite a responsibility for the filmmakers to figure out where the protagonists will go next. Now that I have said that, may the force be with them.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Elf (Re-Release)
Star Rating: 3/4

            The next Christmas movie being re-released in theaters this month is Elf. It’s a witty and joyful tale with humor that may be a little too excessive for some. On the contrary though, that’s just how movies starring Will Ferrell are. Some like him and some don’t but Elf is still a good flick to play around this time of year.

            We start off with an orphaned baby boy being tucked into a crib on the night of Christmas Eve. All of a sudden he sees someone come down the chimney: Santa Claus (Edward Asner). As Santa leaves his parents for the children at the orphanage, the baby somehow manages to escape his crib and crawls into the bag because he saw a teddy bear in there. Santa returns to the North Pole and finds the baby. One of his elves (Bob Newhart) decides to adopt the boy as his own son and names him Buddy. Years pass and Buddy becomes the oddball of the population due to being twice the size of those around him as an adult. Once he overhears that he is a human, he sets out to find his biological father, a children’s book publisher named Walter Hobbs (James Caan) somewhere in New York City.

            Everything else that comes next makes the people around Buddy think he just came out of a mental asylum, to say the least. We all know Will Ferrell can get extremely erratic in his performances and his portrayal here reaches a new peak. Everyone has their own views on what is funny and what isn’t. For me, Ferrell can be too over-the-top in his comedy. Based on the Saturday Night Live skits I’ve seen him in, he either humors me or disgusts me, and I don’t mean that in the sense that he’s repulsive in my perspective. As Buddy, he’s definitely wild, hyper and full of energy. Even though I found myself sympathizing with those he was weirding out more, it is still possible to sympathize with his character. Ferrell definitely makes him likeable to an extent.

            One other aspect I found interesting was the production design. When we see the North Pole in the film, the backgrounds look like they’re straight out of an animated Christmas short. The backgrounds look hand-drawn, cut out of cardboard boxes or whatever animated tricks those short films used but that was a nice touch. This film intends to have Christmas spirit and does that by paying homage to past entertainment sources before them. Another plus to Elf is the visual effects. It all looks so seamless because it looks so practical. My guess is they used a lot of green-screening but the visual effects aren’t overdone or cheesy. They feel authentic, as they always should feel.

            I should also give props to the execution of the narrative. It takes its time to tell the story but once we get to the third act, it all ties together like the strings around a present. The movie we are given will make many laugh. I walked out of the theater with a smile on my face. All the filmmakers wanted to with Elf was spread some Christmas cheer for its audiences and it does so with success.