Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Post, Phantom Thread, Molly's Game, Mary and the Witch's Flower Reviews

Hello all! Welcome to my first review post of the new year. I've decided to experiment with a new rating system that may or may not simplify things. There are now only three ratings: SKIP IT, SEE IT, and WAIT FOR NETFLIX. Let me know if you like this new method or prefer the old fashioned A-F scale!

The Post
Dir. Steven Spielberg
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Steven Spielberg is such an efficient, workman-like director that he made The Post while still in post-production on his upcoming special effects extravaganza Ready Player One. Not unlike the newspaper reporters depicted in the film, Spielberg's style is straightforward, sensational, and fast-paced. He's the seemingly perfect director for the material, and with a cast filled top-to-bottom with amazing talent, I thought The Post would have been a slam-dunk. Unfortunately, this intriguing true story of the Washington Post's ethical dilemma in regards to publishing the top secret Pentagon Papers feels a little too pat and easy for its own good. It lacks the paranoia of All the President's Men, the authenticity of Spotlight, and the urgency of Citizenfour, settling for a hum-drum, nicely polished history lesson.

The film centers on the unlikely partnership between The Washington Post's Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) - the first female publisher of a major newspaper - and her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who was famously portrayed by Jason Robards in All the President's Men. Their paper is trying to catch up to the New York Times' exposé of decades-worth of government cover-ups and lies throughout the Vietnam War, and both Graham and Bradlee have to put their careers on the line to bring the truth to the people.

Although the true story it's based on is fascinating, The Post feels like the "classroom version" of these events. Everything is surface-level and easy to digest for future Social Studies students to fill out a worksheet for. The feminist angle the film takes has the same level of subtlety as Hidden Figures last year - there always seems to be a room full of stodgy white guys being told off by Streep, in my opinion a lazy shorthand for female empowerment. There's even a scene where Sarah Paulson, playing Bradlee's wife, literally spells out Graham's character arc in a monologue that exists just for another rousing scene to add to the "Oscar reel."

The Post more or less depicts reporters as superheroes, presenting a timely response to Donald Trump attacking the press as "fake news," but it never quite packs the punch needed to make its first amendment message hit home. It's like All the Presidents Men, the Kidz Bop edition. Too bland and stagy to register as authentic, The Post feels like Spielberg on auto-pilot.

Final Verdict:

Phantom Thread
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
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Though his films don't hit big at the box office, among film nerds Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most revered directors working today. Reuniting with Daniel Day-Lewis after their amazing collaboration together on There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread supposedly marks Lewis's final screen role (according to Lewis, anyway). Whether or not it's his last, it's an absolutely fantastic performance and one hell of a movie - a dramatic period-piece featuring a peculiar romance that would make Hitchcock proud.

Set in glamorous 1950s London, Phantom Thread follows the center of British fashion - renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Together they help dress everyone from royalty to movie stars, with Woodcock being the eternal bachelor, putting his work above all else. That is until he meets the young, strong-willed Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes his lover and muse. However, his odd, literally perfectly-tailored life becomes disrupted as his new love enters the picture.

I absolutely loved this movie. Everything about it feels luxurious - the costume design is incredible, the performances are stellar, the music score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood is romantic and beautiful, and there's a surprising amount of humor and thrills. The Alfred Hitchcock influence on this movie is extremely obvious (the name "Woodcock" sounds similar, and "Alma" was Hitch's real wife's name). The romance at its center has the wide-eyed, Gothic feel of Rebecca and the twisted sense of control and perfection from Vertigo. As a fanboy of Hitchcock, I was in heaven!

I can't think of anything that doesn't work in this movie. It has an offbeat ending that I could see turning people off, but I thought it was brilliant. Just go see Phantom Thread - it's sew good!

Final Verdict:

Molly's Game
Dir. Aaron Sorkin
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Aaron Sorkin is one of the all-time best-loved screenwriters, providing the intelligent, snappy dialogue to movies like A Few Good Men and The Social Network, and TV shows like The West Wing and The Newsroom. With Molly's Game, Sorkin makes his directorial debut, and lo and behold, it's basically wall-to-wall words. A classic example of how a writer-director can hold their screenplay a little too sacred, Molly's Game is an exhausting experience. When Sorkin's words have a fantastic director, like David Fincher, to interpret his work it can be glorious, but this movie is in dire need of an editor.

The film follows the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic-class skier who ran the world's most exclusive high-stakes poker tournaments for over a decade before being arrested by the FBI. Her games were filled with Hollywood royalty, business moguls, and, unbeknownst to Molly, the Russian mob. After her arrest, seemingly the only one on her side is her criminal defense lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who learns that there's more to Molly's story than is featured in the tabloids.

Much like The Post, I feel like this movie squanders an otherwise interesting true story. While Chastain does a commendable job acting as a femme fatale of sorts, luring rich men into her game to make a living, her story is told with so much aggressively fast-paced narration it's hard to have an emotional connection to anything going on. Every character talks about their trade - from poker-playing to criminal law - with such ferocious specificity that it's very easy to get lost in their rants. Sorkin also adds unnecessary literary references just to make things seem more cultured and intellectual.

He's an amazing writer, but when it comes to directing his own screenplays, someone needs to put a leash on Aaron Sorkin. I can only imagine that if a David Fincher took hold of this story how great it could have been!

Final Verdict:

Mary and the Witch's Flower
Dir. Yoshiaki Nishimura
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NOTE: As with most anime films in the US, there's both a subtitled version and a dubbed version (with Kate Winslet providing voice over work). I saw the subtitled version so that's what I'll be reviewing here.

Mary and the Witch's Flower marks the debut film from new animation studio Studio Ponoc, founded by several of the same animators from the legendary Studio Ghibli. While it's getting some mixed reviews, I thought this debut feature was an amazing note to start things off with. Mary and the Witch's Flower essentially presents a Ghibli-esque re-imagining of Harry Potter, with a social misfit who stumbles into a magical world and learns she has some witch-like powers. However, as she delves deeper into this world, she slowly comes to the realization that sometimes power corrupts.

While the story follows the typical "fantasy" movie template as seen in Alice in Wonderland, Labyrinth, etc., and the lead heroine isn't quite as charismatic as other films of its type, the animation in Mary and the Witch's Flower is simply breathtaking. From the very first scene, we're presented to a world with its own crazy magical rules, and although this is essentially a children's film, the filmmakers don't spoon-feed the audience with expository dialogue on how everything works (it reminded me of Doctor Strange in that way).

Both literally and figuratively, this movie is magical. It's visually unlike anything I've ever seen (not that I'm much of an expert on anime), and I found the simple story charming. It's like a modern fairy tale and it reminded me of the first time I saw Spirited Away. If you're a Potter-head or Ghibli-nut, Mary and the Witch's Flower comes highly recommended.

Final Verdict:

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