The Post (2017) starring Tom Hanks & Meryl Streep

WARNING: This review contains MILD SPOILERS for the film.

When American military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, realizes to his disgust the depths of the US government’s deceptions about the futility of the Vietnam War, he takes action by copying top-secret documents that would become the Pentagon Papers. Later, Washington Post owner, Kay Graham, is still adjusting to taking over her late husband’s business when editor Ben Bradlee discovers the New York Times has scooped them with an explosive expose on those papers. Determined to compete, Post reporters find Ellsberg himself and a complete copy of those papers. However, the Post’s plans to publish their findings are put in jeopardy with a Federal restraining order that could get them all indicted for Contempt. Now, Kay Graham must decide whether to back down for the safety of her paper or publish and fight for the Freedom of the Press. In doing so, Graham and her staff join a fight that would have America’s democratic ideals in the balance. -IMDB summary

This tightly edited/well-acted historical drama (directed by Spielberg) is a MUST-SEE for our (politically troubled) times! Spielberg wanted to have his film released as quickly as possible given the parallels between its theme and the burgeoning political “fake news” climate in the U.S. According to Streep, the physical shoot started in May 2017 and finished at the end of July and Spielberg had it cut two weeks later. The film went from script to final cut in a modest 9 mos.

Tom Hanks (WaPo editor Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (newspaper owner Katharine Graham) are the main draws here, BUT there are also chances for (younger/less famous) actors to shine. You will some fine moments featuring Matthew Rhys (Daniel Ellsberg), Alison Brie (star of GLOW), Jessie Plemons (most recently on Black Mirror), and Sarah Paulson (who plays the supportive wife of Bradlee). As I heard on NPR, this movie doesn’t get into the fact that Bradlee actually had 3 marriages which were far from ideal.  

At times, Graham is unsure of what steps to take w/ regards to the future of her paper (which was losing money). She is a woman in a man’s world, who didn’t have to work until she suddenly became a widow in middle-age. Her trusted ally is her long-time attorney, Fritz Beebe (actor/writer Tracy Letts); he is a male ally (though they wouldn’t have used this term in the late ’60s). Beebe helps Graham stands up to Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), who thinks she’s NOT the right person to head the paper.

Can journos be friends w/ politicians? Hmmm, it’s NOT such a good idea, as BOTH Bradlee and Graham come to realize. Bradlee knows that he was TOO close to the Kennedys (personally), so got the kinds of access that other newsmen wouldn’t have. Graham’s long-time friendship w/ former Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) is tested, BUT she doesn’t let him intimidate her into being silent. Ben Bagdikian (Bod Odenkirk) provides some of the humor in the movie; he is a dogged senior reporter who tracks down Ellsberg.

 

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Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, & Kyle Chandler

This film was an awards show darling a few years back, BUT I didn’t get around to seeing it until last week (on Netflix). The film (made for less than $12 million) received a 10 min. standing ovation at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival -WOW! The woman who wrote The Price of Salt– Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January, Strangers on a Train, etc.)- was a friend (later in life) to the screenwriter of Carol, Phyllis Nagy. The Price of Salt was inspired by a blonde woman in a mink coat who ordered a doll from Highsmith when she was working as a temporary salesgirl in the toy section of Bloomingdale’s in New York City during the 1948 Christmas season.

Director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven; HBO’s miniseries Mildred Pierce) has a deep interest in stories w/ strong women and unlikely love. His style was inspired by Douglas Sirk, who was known for “women’s pictures” (Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, etc.) Carol is quite an effective film w/ regard to its look: period costumes and hairdos (wigs), musical score (by Carter Burwell, frequent collaborator of the Coen brothers), beautiful cinematography (by Edward Lachman), and thoughtful directing style. Carol was shot on Super 16 mm film to resemble the look and feel of photographic film from the late ’40s/early ’50s. There is shooting through windows and using reflection.

What I found lacking was the dialogue; I found out that some other viewers felt the same. I expected more deep conversations between the two leading characters, 21 y.o. clerk, Terese Belivet (Rooney Mara- wide-eyed yet wise beyond her years), and 30-something housewife, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). However, it wasn’t hard to relate to Terese, who feels uneasy and unsophisticated when hanging out w/ Carol (w/ her fur coat, jewels, and manicured red nails). Terese wants to work as a photographer; she is more of an observer, letting life happen to her.

Carol is a BIT of a mystery to the viewer, as well as to Terese. It’s obvious to viewers that Carol deeply loves her young daughter, Rindy. The character of Carol was inspired by Virginia Kent Catherwood (1915-1966), a Philadelphia socialite 6 years older than Highsmith with whom she had a love affair in the ’40s. Catherwood lost custody of her daughter after a taped recording of a liaison she had in a hotel was used against her. Carol is risking much by falling in love with Terese, BUT she can’t help it, as she tells Abby (Sarah Paulson). This woman who seems to know Carol best; Abby had a much bigger role before the film was edited, Paulson said in interviews after the film was released. Abby is someone that I wanted to know more about; she isn’t afraid to assert herself in a male-dominated world.

The men in story are NOT evil, BUT they are clueless. Terese’s long-time boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), seems like a decent guy, though there isn’t much interest on her side. Richard is planning/saving for a big trip to Europe after they get married. I thought it spoke volumes when Terese gently refused to go to over to his family’s home on Christmas day. Danny (John Magaro), the young newspaper reporter who hits on Terese, turns out to be a supportive friend in time. Even Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Harg (Kyle Chandler), is NOT painted as an all-out villain. I thought the actor did a fine job w/ the role, esp. in the more quiet moments (notice the pained expressions on his face). I think that Harg loved Carol, BUT he didn’t realize just how far she had gone from him (emotionally). When they were married, her life was all about him (as was expected of a housewife of Carol’s status).

The Magnificent Seven (2016) starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, & Ethan Hawke

Director Antoine Fuqua brings his modern vision to a classic story in MGM and Columbia Pictures’ re-imagining of The Magnificent Seven (based on Seven Samurai). With the town of Rose Creek under the control of evil robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), the desperate townspeople (“simple farmers”), led by young widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), employ protection from seven outlaws, bounty hunters, gamblers and hired guns: warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), card playing Joshua Farraday (Chris Pratt), former Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Bible-quoting bounty hunter Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), East Asian knife fighter Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee- a star in his native South Korea), wanted outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo- a Mexican actor), and young Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). As this motley crew prepare the town for the violent showdown w/ Bogue and his (many) hired men, these mercenaries find themselves fighting for more than money.

Right off the bat, we realize that Bogue is a cartoonish villain, unlike Eli Wallach’s bandit leader in the original. Bogue shoots a farmer, Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer), who stands up to him outside the town church. That’s NOT even a smart bad guy move, as the reviewers on What the Flick!? said. Don’t look for much characterization in this movie, though it’s nice to see Denzel and Hawke’s chemistry onscreen many years after Training Day. I wanted to know more re: how they were connected, aside from one scene. I thought Haley Bennett did well; her character ends up fighting (w/ the Seven; in the original, it was a young Mexican man from the town.

The cast is diverse, which has a contemporary edge, as Mark Kermode noted. Vasquez repeatedly calls Faraday “huero;” Faraday asks what it means, but receives no reply. It’s a Mexican racial slur meaning “whitey.” Considering the ethnic make up of the Seven in 1879, the fact that this is the only racial slur directed at any one of the Seven during the entire film is somewhat of an anachronism. The two former Confederates (Faraday and Robicheaux) and African American Chisholm would likely have at least some animosity. Horne who has taken “300 Comanche scalps” would certainly make Red Harvest feel wary. D’Onfrio (who also worked earlier w/ Hawke) is playing an eccentric, over-the-top character, yet pulls it off so well that you want to know more. The way he speaks is so unusual, too. As for the Asian, every race looked down on them at this time in US history! However, the men’s mutual respect for each other as fighters may go some way to explain lack of racial tension.

I’m NOT a fan of Chris Pratt; the jokes he is given (mostly) fall flat and NOT that funny. In moments, his way of talking and attitude comes off as TOO modern (as Jeremy Jahns observed). As for Pratt’s screen presence and charisma factor, sorry, BUT I fail to see it. Fuqua cast him in the Steve McQueen role, BUT he just doesn’t measure up. I don’t see how this actor keeps getting big roles! I applaud him for losing weight/getting healthier after age 30. I heard that he and Denzel became quite friendly on the set; maybe Pratt picked up some tips from the veteran actor. We can hope, right?

This film embraces cliches and the typical things you expect from the Western genre. The action here is bigger, louder, and longer (in part to the incorporation of the Gatling gun in the third act). OK, I was NOT expecting that, which made the stakes higher and created even more danger for the heroes and the townspeople. Aside from the action, one of the reasons to see this movie is its music. Fuqua explained that James Horner’s team visited him on set in Baton Rouge, one month after the composer’s accidental death, to deliver the completed score. Horner liked the script so much that he composed the entire score during pre-production (WOW)! Almost each time there is a shot of Vasquez, we hear a reused cue from Horner’s score for The Mask of Zorro (1998). I knew this sounded familiar, then saw this bit of info on IMDB. From the moment when Faraday gets his horse and rides away, there are some beats from the original movie’s theme song, but with different instruments. In the closing credits the entire original theme song is heard.

There are some great wide shots in this film (which you can see on Amazon Prime). It aims for entertainment, NOT critical acclaim. It’s got some nice moments, BUT I expected more. There are a few lines (of Denzel’s) that I thought were quite fitting for the genre and his character. He does a fine job (as usual); he has an all-black costume, yet plays it cool (restrained), as Yul Brynner did. We eventually learn that Chisholm wants revenge against Bogue b/c of what happened years ago to his family. Finally, Emma gets to kill the man who took her husband from her. Only three of the Seven survive the fighting: Chisholm, Vasquez, and Red Harvest- this may be subversive (as Kristy Lemire said).