-Reviews of The Post, Phantom Thread, and Hostiles
-As an introduction, I do realize that there has been movies actually released in 2018, but I just haven’t been interested enough to see them. I probably will catch Insidious: The Last Key and The Commuter on Redbox, but outside of that, I’ve mostly been watching out for the expansion of awards-season independent releases into nationwide theaters. All three of these are examples of that, but look for my reviews of Fifty Shades Freed, The 15:17 to Paris, Black Panther, and Annihilation in the coming weeks.
Director: Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, Schindler’s List, ET the Extra Terrestrial, Indiana Jones Quadrilogy, Lincoln, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Catch Me If You Can, The Adventures of Tintin, Minority Report, Bridge of Spies) (and many more…)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, and Tracy Letts
with: Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, and Michael Stuhlbarg
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
The Post may be this year’s most discernible prestige picture, directed by the most recognizable film-maker in history and starring two bi-generational talents in Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. But for every cynical piece of me which wants to view this movie as merely a grab at various film ceremonies, there’s also a part of me that views The Post as a story that needs to be put in the modern perspective. We’re again in an area where our current administration lambastes and targets the media with an intent to make them seem either less palatable or less honest. “Fake news” competitions may sound funny in memes, but what happens when reputable news sources become afraid or unable to publish the truth, even if its negative?
The story will be a familiar one to the audience most likely. The United States government spent a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of effort engaged in Vietnam, and nearly as much attention went into the cover-up as it did the actual war. It all started when the New York Times produced a smaller, but accurate, story about the cover-up in the Johnson administration. Even though Johnson had since left office, Nixon, obsessed with the public image of himself and the White House (and possibly with an interest in protecting state secrets), sought an injunction to stop any more of these damaging, and revealing, reports from seeing the light of day. While the New York Times was tied up in the initial stages of a Court battle that would later help define the First Amendment’s protection of the free press, a smaller paper (the Washington Post) was able to get to the source and continue publishing more and more about the leaked documents.
Although the Washington Post is now a powerhouse newspaper after these Pentagon Papers stories and the coverage of Watergate a few years later, at the time, they were only a local entity. While we get plenty of the nationwide implications about what publishing the Pentagon Papers really meant in this movie, our story is more about the risks taken by a hungry editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and a recently widowed publisher trying to make her way in a mostly unfamiliar industry (Meryl Streep as Kay Graham). Against some firm resistance from within the company and risking possible criminal charges for continuing to publish, the Post decided to fight for a free press, and started a chain of stories that put them on the map.
The real standout in the film is actually the cinematography, done by long-time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. The camera loves to follow our reporters and their pursuit of documentation, gazing almost wantonly into boxes of papers stamped with “confidential” symbols. It’s as if the camerawork wants us to feel like we’re spying in on conversations we shouldn’t be hearing, and looking into boxes of papers that we shouldn’t be seeing. The intensity of this specific style helps keep the film upbeat, and keeps the pace pretty hot throughout, refusing to allow a movie based more on history feel like a class lecture. Spielberg knows a few things about entertaining an audience, and he manages to make simple things completely captivating. It’s as if his years of blockbuster film-making and consistent acclaim in his more dramatic work actually help him make movies exciting. Who knew? (John Williams also contributes a nice score.)
While most of our actors are recognizable, most are in smaller roles. The only two people we really learn about in the film are Hanks’s Bradlee and Streep’s Graham. Admittedly, this film really is about them and their joint decision-making, but I was a bit surprised that this isn’t a true ensemble cast movie. Bob Odenkirk is charming in a minor role, but I can’t really say anyone other than the two leads really contributed to the film.
Streep has a few great scenes, especially as her character grows toward the end of the film. She begins recognizing her position of authority and starts using it. When she takes control, Streep takes control of the movie, and brings us to the end on her character’s sheer will alone. If the camera-work and intrigue of finding the Pentagon Papers and sorting through the secrets drove the first half of the movie in an almost espionage-like fashion, it’s Streep’s portrayal of Graham’s growth that drives the second half. Tom Hanks is sturdy, motivated, and charming as Ben Bradlee, and you can see why he was a good choice for the role. I’m still a little surprised the Academy didn’t bite for an Oscar nomination, but it could be because he has some modern-day detractors who think that his style is overbearing. I disagree, and think Hanks is really good here, but I digress.
The only thing that brings the movie down is the screenplay. It has multiple writers, and was probably re-worked to make the process of the “source” getting the papers and distributing them a bit shorter, but it made occasional moments in the first act pretty confusing. There were times where journalists at the Post would mention a name of someone who could know something, and I could not remember where else in the script they were mentioned. This issue of being bombarded with extra information we end up not needing, mixed with a few clunky transitions, set the movie off to a slightly rocky start. It does rally in the end, and become a fast-paced, interesting, and surprisingly relevant film about the importance of good reporting, but it isn’t a perfect ride. This won’t be a Spielberg classic, but for anyone else, this is pretty damn good.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, The Master)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Brian Gleeson, and Harriet Sansom Harris
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Phantom Thread blends the romance and thriller genres in a really unique way, detailing the intricate power struggle that can occur within a relationship. It’s the kind of plot which contains situations where our two lead characters are almost bartering for control over the room, and they often harm each other in the process. Partially, it’s about a controlling perfectionist learning to realize that even his most suitable partner will not be absolutely desirable to him 100% of the time, but partially, it’s about a lower-class woman learning more about herself and establishing confidence to give the more controlling party what he needs: some resistance. This power struggle unfolds while drenched in the backdrop of cultural warfare, with high fashion and wealthy clients, but at its core is as simple as any movie with two main people as the lead. There’s a kink with a sister getting involved, but I’ll save that for later.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a wealthy dress designer in 1950s London, consistently involved with women but never truly connected to them. It appears that he brings women on board to model for him, and possibly strike up a “relationship,” but romance doesn’t enter the picture. The more supportive, emotional connection comes from his live-in sister (Lesley Manville), who is the only person he accepts any sort of dissent from. After having the previous woman leave his residence, he finds a new muse named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Alma is a bit naive and innocent, but Reynolds and her quickly strike up a relationship. He designs her a dress, they flirt and dine together, go to functions together, but never break his routine and structure. For Reynolds, the most important part of his life is his structure: silence in the morning so he can sketch designs, then immediately to work where his sister and current muse work on the physical dress with his team of seamstresses, and finally, some sort of dinner out with the women or a social function.
Alma quickly becomes empowered by her importance of being a model and holding such an intimate place in Reynolds’ life. However, she desires more than being just a sidekick. When Alma wants to be on superior footing to the sister, Cyril, and hold a true place of confidence with Reynolds, she begins breaking his routine and trying to be spontaneous with him, with disastrous consequences.
In a way, the film shows us what is common in any relationship. Reynolds and Alma must work through the small defects in their connection to keep the better stuff at the forefront. Alma is a bit noisy and clumsy, disturbing Reynolds in his time of quiet. Yet, Reynolds’ desire for structure and routine keep Alma away from what she desires more than anything: a true relationship without the unnecessary boundaries. What they ask of each other seems impossible, but the film’s resolution to this give-and-take/push-and-pull between the leads is really satisfying. It’s also extremely satisfying to see Alma begin taking charge in Reynolds’ life over the sister. As Alma grows her confidence, she also grows her defiance to the deference that is given to Cyril.
If the film is just a commentary about relationships, we could stop there. But frankly, that commentary is nothing more than something as simple as Fifty Shades of Grey gives us. There’s a controlling guy, used to his structure, fears intimacy, and likes dominance who falls for a woman he initially views as meek, but is proven wrong when her tenacity, bravery, and confidence grow over time. This eventually gives him an equal, something he didn’t even know he wanted.
I saw the film partially about overcoming personality conflicts in long-term relationships, but also as a commentary about an artist’s relationship with the artistic process. There’s an initial phase where you become captivated, a slow but steady souring as the initial endorphins wash out, and then despite the poisoning that can occur in your soul after failure, you seek it out again in a vicious cycle. Reynolds is an artist, and Alma is his collection of work. It’s not as simple as staying safe within the parameters of what works for you. As Alma pushes for spontaneity, Reynolds is forced to think outside the box and adapt. It isn’t always easy on him, but the power play between the central relationship works really well as a proxy for a deeper meaning about an artist’s relationship with his work.
Daniel Day-Lewis is rumored to be retiring from acting after this role, and I would be totally happy if he departed with an Oscar win (him or Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill really). He’s occasionally exquisitely charming, but also often intimidating and tough to relate to. It’s a special performance in the lead that really carries the movie. Vicky Krieps is really good as his foil, and we really see her transformation more than any other character. Lesley Manville is at a really nice place with Cyril because she does just enough to be a villainous character, but we can’t truly tell what her motives are.
The costumes are incredible. They transported me right into the time period, and they even challenged the audience to not like some of the designs. I know I didn’t, but I also wasn’t part of wealthy London in the 50s. (I also don’t know a ton about dresses.) The movie uses a great aesthetic to tell the story with rich, and often bleached in white, cinematography, but gets its best production boost from Jonny Greenwood’s impeccable score. Greenwood’s score dances between romantic whimsy and tension, while the colored-white cinematography show Reynolds’ life as being very clinical. It’s as if he lives in a hospital. Maybe some spontaneity would be good for him!
Considering the performances, the score, and the style that this movie is presented in, it clearly would’ve been competing to be in my Top 10 for Best Films of the Year had I seen it in time. This is one of the year’s best movies, and would highly suggest seeing it. The marketing makes this seem like a period-piece costume drama, but it actually is based in sadistically delicious romance and filled with tons of thriller elements. There was tension, great acting, and a nice pace that the production gives the film. This is a really great work from Director Paul Thomas Anderson.
Director: Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace)
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Rory Cochrane, and Jesse Plemons
with: Ben Foster, Adam Beach, Timothee Chalamet, Jonathan Majors, and Stephen Lang
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%
There’s a brutality to Hostiles that has made some critics view it as “the best Western since Unforgiven,” a quote that’s plastered all over the TV Spots for this movie. While I pretty strongly disagree with this, it’s undeniable that the Western (once one of Hollywood’s proudest genres) has become a pretty minor player overall. While Hostiles is mostly an average release overall, the brilliant settings and familiar mystique of a good Western are still present. I’ll talk a little bit about the reasons that this movie falls short of reaching its full potential, but the film’s importance shouldn’t be attached to its brutality or its genre. Instead, while the good theme to take away from the movie seems like a Western cliche (a Southern military-man learning to befriend, accept, and understand the local Native Americans), it actually ends up being surprisingly relevant for today’s world. Social acceptance and the emotional growth of our two lead characters end up playing a huge role in the movie. I would suggest watching some of the interviews with Christian Bale as he promotes the film. He draws these parallels to modern day, as well.
Our two leads open in separate locations. Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie Quaid is at home with her children when the local Commache tribe come to steal their horses and raid their lands. Her husband attempts to fight back, and it leads to the death of Rosalie’s husband and three children. She is left grieving in a burnt down house, starting the movie off in a brutal and emotional fashion.
Several miles over, as this is going on, Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is assigned his final mission before he can retire and collect his robust military pension. He is to escort the imprisoned and terminally ill Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their reservation in Montana. This journey from New Mexico, where they are currently located, will take months, and the prejudiced Blocker immediately objects to his superiors about it (including an excellent scene with Stephen Lang, most recently from Don’t Breathe, as his Colonel). Blocker assembles a team, including his right hand men Sgt Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Cpl Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), and some newcomers (Jesse Plemons and Timothee Chalamet) to get the job done. Very early in the journey, they see Rosalie, and she’s added to their group. This starts the long, and dangerous, journey up to Montana. Commache are on their tail, and Yellow Hawk’s illness is beginning to take its toll.
Blocker has seen several of his comrades and friends killed by the Natives in the territorial warfare. Rosalie has seen her family murdered in front of her. It’s a hard adjustment, but months on the road open up the clear message to both of them; that this is a good family and a mostly good people forced into horrific circumstances. The final scene, where Blocker stands up for the Natives against racist Northern landowners, is fabulous because it shows the steady emotional development that he’s gone through. Moments like this in the film are fantastic, and the grieving Rosalie and Blocker take solace in one another and how much they’ve both lost.
The plot of the film, however, bites off a bit more than it could chew. It brings us a connection between Rosalie and Blocker because of their emotional arcs and their common grief, but it also gives us the story of the Natives, several personal stories from each of Blocker’s team, and then a random subplot that features actor Ben Foster midway through the film. I would watch the hell out of this as a miniseries, but it’s clear a lot got trimmed from this movie. There were rumors that it was originally rated NC-17, so my guess is that the unnecessary rape scene (which we experience the remnants of but not the actual scene) was cut, along with several character defining moments for our supporting cast. The script likely was re-written too, as there are times where Blocker is referred to as “Joe” or “Blocker,” but also times where he is referred to as “Walker.” It’s clearly a film that had some behind-the-scenes issues in production, and so there are times where time passes too fast or where it’s very noticeable that things were cut. I give credit to the editor, Tom Cross (yes, I looked that up, I’m not THAT knowledgeable) to make this movie a legitimate product despite the problems. The end result is still pretty decent, but it’s far from perfect.
The cinematography is gorgeous, and although it’s nothing that the classic westerns don’t give you, it feels so windy and lonesome on the path they take. The establishment shots of the atmosphere are just fabulous. Every bit of the screenplay or pace that may not be up to speed is mostly made up for by pristine production. Remember, this is Scott Cooper. He most recently gave us the fantastic Black Mass, but has also delivered with Crazy Heart and the underrated Out of the Furnace. The director’s vision of making a bleak but powerful drama is still present in Hostiles, it’s just that it was clearly disturbed by tons of cuts and pacing problems. The central characters, however, with Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie and Christian Bale’s Joe (and to a certain extend Wes Studi’s Yellow Hawk albeit in a minor role), all get the screen time necessary to be developed. Don’t let anyone justify a negative review to this film entirely on the premise that “the native american characters aren’t developed enough.” This is Blocker and Rosalie’s movie first and foremost, and the family they are transporting gets plenty of screen time to develop, especially Studi’s Yellow Hawk. If the movie had been specifically about them, there’d be cause for concern about the lack of development, but it’s more about two hate-stricken characters learning to become more socially conscious, and so the fact that the Native American characters get supporting parts is not a problem. Just try to think about the theme of the movie before criticizing its social awareness, especially when its entire purpose is to build social awareness. If you want to complain about inconsistent pacing, problems with tone, and complaints about how important scenes were cut, be my guest. I love Ben Foster, but what purpose does his subplot serve?
I was between a slightly negative and slightly passing score for this film, and then I considered our two lead performances from Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike. I love that Ros is starting to take roles again after having a child a few years back, because she deserved a big-screen blow-up after how good she was in Gone Girl. As for Christian Bale, what else can be said that hasn’t already. He’s the most dedicated actor of the modern age, and physically transforms himself for every role he has, and also wonderfully acts his way through every type of dramatic scene. In this movie, the most beautiful part was when he goes to Yellow Hawk and refers to him as “my friend” because of all they had now been through together. Christian Bale shows such decency in that scene, after being so gruff through the whole movie. He understands his characters and he gets into their skin to the point where you don’t even notice that he’s acting. It becomes more about him playing a particular personality that he has completely figured out. He’s not just the best Batman from “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” he is a transcendent actor who has given us generation-defining work. (see American Psycho, Rescue Dawn, The Prestige, The Machinist, American Hustle, The Fighter, and The Big Short just for some examples). The two leads make this movie. They elevate it from a sloppy mess to a movie with themes and a purpose. It might not be perfect, but it gets a passing grade because of the attention to detail.