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Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: The Post

Post

Merly Streep plays newspaper head Katharine Graham in The Post.

The subject matter of The Post doesn’t sound like the type of subject matter that would win a big crowd, but it is a film worth seeing.

The story goes back in 1966 during the Vietnam War. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg is in Vietnam with General Robert McNamara to document the progress of the war. McNamara admits to Ellsberg and President Johnson that the war is hopeless but has confidence in the effort, leaving Ellsberg disillusioned.

Years later, Ellsberg is now working for a military contractor and comes across classified documents showing the US’s decades-long involvement in the conflict in Vietnam going back to just a few years after World War II ended. Ellsberg discloses the documents to the New York Times.

It’s 1971. Katharine Graham is head of the Washington Post. It’s been a position she mastered with a lot of difficulty as it’s commonly seen as a ‘man’s position.’ Even though her family founded the Post, the position of the head went to her husband Philip instead of her. It was right after Philip’s suicide that Katharine became head. It’s not easy for a female to be head of a newspaper. Especially someone like Graham who has a good work ethic, but lacks experience and is constantly overruled by the aggressiveness of the men of the Post. On top of that, she seeks to gain an IPO for a stock market launch to propel the Post to greater strength. The Washington Post however is second-fiddle to the New York Times which always has the biggest news scoops, even the scoops of what’s happening in Washington.

Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee is one of the men who work for her. He tries in vain to be one step ahead of the New York Times in coming up with the latest scoops, but falls short each time. Meanwhile McNamara, who is a friend of Graham’s, confesses to her of how he’s the subject of bad news in the New York Times. It’s through their constant expose of the government’s deception of the American public. However a court injunction blockades any further publication of such news by the Times.

Ellsberg is willing to provide the documents and opportunity to the Post to publish the stories. As they look through the stories to publish, lawyers to the Post advise against publishing the story, fearing the Nixon administration will press criminal charges. Graham seeks advice from McNamara, Bradlee and Post chairman Fritz Beebe of whether to publish. It’s made even more frustrating when the lawyer note that since  the sources are the same as the New York Times, Graham herself could be charged with contempt of court. It’s a gamble. Graham risks terminating the newspaper her family established. Alternatively, the Post won such a legal battle, it would establish itself as a major journalism source, much on the same level as the New York Times.

She agrees to have the story published. The White House retaliated by taking both the Times and the Post to the Supreme Court to argue their case of publishing classified document information being a First Amendment Right. Both newspapers receive almost unanimous support from the other newspapers in the US and they win their Supreme Court battle 6-3. An infuriated Nixon bans the Post from the White House. And the rest is infamy… for Nixon.

The film is more than just about a top secret story that needed to be exposed and makes journalism history. The story is also about the newspaper behind the story. We shouldn’t forget that this came at a time when The New York Times was the newspaper that delivered the biggest news about what was happening in the Oval Office and the ones to do it first. Even though the Washington Post was the newspaper of Washington, DC, it was more of a second-fiddle newspaper like the newspapers of the rest of the cities. The New York Times lead and all other newspapers, including the Washington Post followed. This story allowed the Washington Post take pole position towards what was happening in Washington. This would also allow for the Washington Post to be the prime newspaper to go to upon the breaking of the Watergate Scandal. Even despite the Post competing against the Times, they united when they faced the heat of the freedom-of-speech debate and won together.

The film is not simply about a history-making story, a legal breakthrough or even a milestone for a newspaper. It’s also the personal story of Katharine Graham and how she had to achieve greatness for herself. Katharine Graham was born into the paper and assumed control of it right after her husband died. It was always tradition that a man headed the newspaper. After the suicide of her husband, she headed it. The paper her ancestors founded and the paper she wants to propel into marketability. This news story could help be the boost she needed, but the court injunction against the New York Times causes her to put it on hold. Basically she’s gambling everything with this touchy story: the Times, her status as a leader, her role as a woman with power, her role as a mother, even her own personal freedom. In the end, that one decision caused left all of us convinced she did the right thing. She did more than just allow a story. She did more than boost the profile of the Washington Post. She created a breakthrough in freedom of speech and freedom of press. On top of that, she earned the respect from her male colleagues. That was rare back in the early 70’s.

This story is very relevant to the present. We always hear those words ‘fake news.’ We have a feeling that Donald Trump is like a big brother monster who wants to control everything. There are often times in which I wonder if the times of Nixon were worse than the times of Trump. I know all about Nixon and his lust for control. Whatever the times, the story and the court ruling against government censorship of the press serves as a reminder to all citizens that the press has the right to publish the truth to the public. The ruling of the New York Times vs. The United States of America back then was clear: “‘In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” That ruling still applies today.

Leave it to Steven Spielberg to direct a story that will capture our intrigue. Some would describe this type of story as a ‘boring story.’ Steven Spielberg knows how to direct it into something interesting and have us glued to the screens. The screenplay by Josh Singer and Liz Hannah also creates the right interest and intrigue. They’re able to take the chain of events surrounding the publishing of the story and turn it into a story of intrigue. Even a story from a humanist side.

Once again, Meryl Streep delivers in creating depth in a public figure. She gave Katharine Graham the right dimension and the right humanistic tone to make the story work. Tom Hanks also does an excellent job in his role as Ben Bradlee. He delivers in the character very well as he adds some dimension to Bradlee too. The supporting actors may have minor or limited roles, but they add to the film too. Janusz Kaminski does an excellent job of cinematography and John Williams again delivers a fitting score.

The Post is a journalism story that will keep one intrigued. It’s a story that’s very relevant today as it’s also about our own right to know the truth.

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Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Emma Thompson portrays the author of Mary Poppins to be like someone we never expected her to be at all in Saving Mr. Banks.

Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) tries to get a stubborn P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson)  to agree to a movie version of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks.

Saving Mr. Banks is to be the story of how Walt Disney was able to bring Mary Poppins to the big screen. The question is not just will it bring the story to life but will it make people want to see it on the big screen?

It’s 1961 and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers is struggling financially. Walt Disney has been trying to get Travers to agree to allow him to adapt Mary Poppins to the big screen for 20 years on account of a promise he made to his daughter. Travers finally agrees, albeit reluctantly but she’s extremely distrustful of Walt. She has stern expectations of Mary being adapted to the big screen such as no musical numbers, no Dick Van Dyke, none of the Disney frilliness and no animation.

Things do not start well for Mrs. Travers. She’s unhappy in Los Angeles with the carefree attitude of the city and by the happy ways Walt Disney, his co-workers and even Ralph the chauffeur do business. Not even Walt’s familiar manners warm up well to Travers.  Things get harder as Don DaGradi does the script, the Sherman brothers compose the music and Walt designs the characters. She even has a problem with Mary Poppins being the epitome of sentiment and whimsy, believing she’s the opposite of that. That surprises the Disney crew as they’ve always viewed Poppins as fantastical and known Travers to have a fantastical childhood, as seen through flashbacks.

However things take a turn for the worse when Travers sees the depiction of George Banks. She believes he is completely off-base  and leaves distraught. It’s then where the Disney studio realizes that Mary Poppins and its characters are very personal to Travers. It’s through flashbacks that we learn that Travers Goff, her father and the inspiration of George Banks, was indeed a banker but valued his imagination more than work in the real world. Things became too crushing for Travers and he would lose his job and his sanity to alcoholism. Her mother was the stern one of the family who even attempted suicide once.

The Disney team are persistent and try to work things out. Walt even offers to take Ms. Travers to Disneyland to lighten her mood. Things improve. The trip to Disneyland improves her embrace of the imagination, albeit slightly. Travers also has an unlikely friendship with Ralph the chauffeur as he tells her his handicapped daughter loves the novel. Things really improve when she walks in and hears George Banks is given a happier manner and has him singing ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ at the end. But just when things seem to be working out, she learns of dancing penguins in a scene. That infuriates Travers to the point she refuses to Walt the film rites and flies back to London.

Once Disney learns that P.L. Travers is actually an Australian names Helen Goff, he departs to London for one last chance. Walt arrives at Travers’ home and opens up to her during his visit. He tells her that he too had a troubling childhood with a stern father and growing up poor. It was through his animation and his happy characters that he was able to heal and he tells Travers that having a creative imagination would also help in her healing of her disappointment with the world. She eventually agrees but she’s not invited to the 1964 premiere for fear of her panning it. Once news hits her, she shows up at Disney studios demanding to be invited. Her reactions at the premiere are unexpected but those of us who’ve seen Mary Poppins would know the movie would have a happy ending.

There have been movies before about the making some of the most famous children’s stories. I even remember seeing Finding Neverland a few years ago. The film of an adaptation of a novel to movie is not something one would call a fresh idea. Nevertheless it is unique this case of adapting the Mary Poppins novel to the big screen.

We should keep in mind that to make a film like this, it would have to be entertaining and keep audiences interested. It succeeds with some surprises. First is the personality of P.L. Travers. It’s funny that we see this uppity personally and we’re left thinking: “Are you sure this prig is the author of Mary Poppins?” Second is Travers’ feelings towards Disney’s style of creativity and how on earth it would ever be adapted. Crazy thing is we all know it was adapted. Even still the film makes you forget that and wonder if it will, even as the Sherman brothers sing the movie’s songs we all know. Third is that the biggest issue wasn’t the depiction of Mary but of George Banks. Travers designed George to be kind like her own father while Walt was in favor of a stern George Banks like his own father. You could understand how this would cause the two to collide.

The movie isn’t just of the dealmaking for the adaptation. The film is also of Travers’ own inspiration of Mary Poppins from her own childhood. We see how over time Travers had a nanny she thought as magical as her father was dying. We also see her father as a banker but one who believed in fantasy and the imagination. Even after he died, the spirit of his imagination lived on in Travers, even as she tended to her younger sisters and dealt with a troubled mother. Many of us are already familiar with Walt Disney and his fun ways. However we learn more of P.L. Travers and of her upbringing and her own imagination. That’s a good thing because I don’t think most of us ever did. None of us ever expected the author of Mary Poppins to be the stern type. However she was one who would try to come to terms with her imagination as noted in a scene where she’s in bed and confides to hugging a stuffed Pluto.

People should not be fooled too easily. There are many people who think this will be a family movie since this is done by Disney and since this a depiction of Walt trying to convince Mary Poppins to agree to let him adapt the novel to screen. However the film’s depiction of Travers’ troubled childhood as Ginty is what keeps it from being family friendly. Elements like an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother are not entirely for a family audience. It may be okay to bring older children to the film but younger ones are not a good idea.

It’s very rare for a female lead to steal a movie from Tom Hanks but Emma Thompson does just that. She was excellent in embodying P.L. Travers as an uptight prig who still harbored a love for the imagination, though only Walt knew it. She also depicted Travers as a person who still struggled with the memory of the father she cherished. We should be reminded that people that produced some of the most delightful entertainment came from troubled childhood, even Walt himself. Tom Hanks delivers a performance that is more a case of character acting than say mastering a difficult part like he did in Captain Phillips. He was very good at capturing Walt’s fun imaginative way of doing business and he made Walt seem like the Wizard Of Oz at times.

Colin Farrell also did a good job as Travers Goff, the father who was troubled by his job but valued his imagination. Paul Giamatti’s role as Ralph the chauffeur was small but he was able to get notice of his own. The other actors with smaller roles, especially those in Walt’s office, added their own pieces and elements to the movie as well. John Lee Hancock did a good job in directing but nothing that really stood out for this film year. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith do their best in making a story for family audiences with their script. Technical items like the set design and costumes were excellently done in fitting the times they were made in. And Thomas Newman did a great job with the score.

Saving Mr. Banks is a delightful movie despite being too polished and ‘safe’ to excel amongst the top Oscar contenders of the year. It’s biggest success is the acting of its actors and the telling of the story of an author we never new. Even with scenes of the author’s troubled childhood, it succeeds in entertaining young and old.

Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is a recreation of a moment of recent history. It’s as much about the man involved in this moment as the moment itself.

Richard Phillips is a captain of freighter ships who lives in Vermont but pilots his freighter ships mostly in the Arabian Sea. One day in April 2009, he’s assigned to be a captain of a freighter bringing relief supplies from Oman to Mombasa, Kenya. He accepts the duty but is well aware of the risk of pirates from Somalia once he sails around the horn of Africa. Meanwhile in Somalia, a group of pirate leaders recruit young men for their next sting. It could be big, it could be small, it’s all in a day’s work.

Captain Phillips is sailing the freighter Maersk Alabama through the Arabian Sea. He’s also taking all precautions to prevent a pirate attack including getting the ship to participate in a drill. The pirates are hungry not just for a simple ship but bigger stuff. Their small rusty motor boats, or skiffs, have ship radar. They see the Maersk Alabama within their view and they chase after it. Fortunately Captain Phillips and the crew are prepared. The first day, the pirates’ motor blows on their boat. Captain Phillips and the crew think the have it solved. What they don’t know is that the pirates are fixing the motor in the boat overnight.

The next day the pirates try again. Captain Phillips and the crew again take precautions like using the hose system to prevent them from coming on board. The pirates notice an area where a hose isn’t working. Perfect opportunity to climb aboard the ship and hold the crew hostage. It’s there where pirate Muse and Captain Phillips meet eye to eye. Phillips tries to get them to leave by offering $30,000 but they want more: millions. The ship is able to shut the power down and able to make the pirates fail in their attempt. However the US forces have received word and have arrived. They try to negotiate with Muse only the have the pirates get away in a lifeboat with Captain Phillips as hostage. They hope Phillips will be their ticket for ransom.

That night the lifeboat is surrounded by navy ships and the crew is too frustrated and start turning on each other. Muse is stubborn with Phillips feeling he can’t go after going this far. The end scene adds to the intensity as it shows the whole standoff between the pirates, the Navy and the SEAL team. You’d be surprised to see how close Phillips was to being executed by the pirates. And even after you think it’s over, it’s not.

The most remarkable thing about the movie is that this is one that really depicts pirates for the negative people that they are. Admit it. We’ve all been charmed by pirate stories: Captain Hook, Captain Kidd, Jack Sparrow, Blackbeard, you get the idea. Even the popular lines like: “Arrrrgh Matey;” “Shiver me timbers” and “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!” show how charmed we are with them. However the news about Somali pirates have given us a reality check about pirates and what they do. This film even shows pirate really are: dirty, merciless thieves who threaten people on ships for their riches.

Another remarkable aspect the movie shows us is the sheer determination of those four pirates. You’d think that a group of four young Somali pirates not even 21 would not stand a chance against a huge freighter like the Maersk Alabama with all their devices and a prepared captain. However they were stubborn enough to fix a motor overnight, find a dry gap in the ship’s hosings, use a ladder to get to the deck, try a getaway with a lifeboat and even resist arrest with the US Armed Forces. The film is very focal on the pirates’ determination and their false sense of invincibility. It even shows how sometimes small has a competitive advantage over the big guy. It’s like that way in the animal kingdom too where insects can find their way into large prey.

Just as much as it focuses on the Somali pirates and their determination, it also focuses on Captain Rich Phillips himself. It especially focuses on Rich’s smarts as he knows about Somali pirates before the attack and even prepares his crew just in case, his smarts when he’s under attack on board and his smarts during the attempted getaway. Even the assault by the navy and the aftermath had Rich Phillips in focus. It was as much about Richard Phillips as it was about the pirates.

Tom Hanks once again delivered a remarkable performance: his best since Cast Away. It’s great to see him perform well in a movie that’s the least Hollywood-like I’ve seen him in. His performance really had a lot of range and was as much about Captain Phillips the person as it was about Captain Phillips the hostage. Equally as spectacular is the direction of Paul Greengrass. Actually It shouldn’t be that Greengrass, who made a name for himself with United 93 about a 9/11 terrorist operation botched by vigilante passengers, directs it. It’s like the film reminds us that the pirates of the seas are like the terrorists on airlines. Always were. Billy Ray did an excellent job of scriptwriting. Surprising that the writer of The Hunger Games is the scriptwriter here.

It’s not to say the movie’s all Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass and Billy Ray. Barkhad Abdi was also excellent as pirate Muse. He makes Muse look like a pirate who didn’t have much of a clue to what he got himself into. Barkhad Abdirahman was also great as the vicious pirate Bilal who possessed a false sense of invincibility. The emsemble of lesser-known American actors added to the quality of the film. The only other well-known actor in the film is Catherine Keener. Actually it’s surprising to see the role of Andrea Phillips, Captain Phillips’ wife, as such a small role. The music of Henry Jackman and the cinematography of Barry Ackroyd also added to the quality of the film.

Captain Phillips is an excellent recreation of a moment in recent history that’s both about the moment and the man involved. Both Hanks and Greengrass do it again.

Oscars 2011 Best Picture Nominee: Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close

“If things were easy to find, they wouldn’t be worth finding.”

I know many of you would be nervous at first of attending a movie like Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. 9/11 films aren’t exactly crowd-winners. Ever since United 93 and even up to now, it still isn’t. It’s still a tense topic to this day and doesn’t make for good subject matter for people to see a movie about. Nevertheless Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close is a good film of its own, if imperfect.
 
Oskar Schell is a young boy who’s a smart but fearful and eccentric brainiac often mistaken for having Asperger’s. However he’s dealing with an inner pain. His father Thomas died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, a day Oskar refers to as ‘the worst day’. His father was a jeweller who spent a lot of time with Oskar nurturing his creative and eccentric quest for knowledge. He would create puzzles, help him develop his own business cards (which lists him as inventor, Francophile and pacifist), have oxymoron challenges while practising karate, and even have scavenger hunts. You could tell Oskar is still very much an intellectual now. He keeps his collection of butterflies. He has his collection of facts and figures. He’s even intellectual in his lewd talk: “Succotash my Balzac, dipshiitake!” Yeah, real charming.
 
However his father’s death still upsets him. He died in the first tower and his body was never found. His mother held a fake funeral with an empty coffin in hopes that it would help them both heal. But Oskar is still hurting and lonely to the point he has distanced himself from his mother and even hurts himself physically. He still has the answering machine of the last six messages his father left before he was killed and replays all but the sixth and last one often, something he has hidden from his mother and replaced with a new answering machine on ‘the worst day’. The only person he talks to regularly is his grandmother who lives in an apartment next door..He feels that the missing ‘puzzle piece’ from the last scavenger hunt he had with his father could keep him from losing the spirit of his father altogether. The quest is to find out what to search for and find it.
 
One year later while Oskar goes through his father’s clothes and olf belongings, he accidentally breaks a vase. In it is a key inside a small envelope with the name black. Oskar believes this key may be the clue to the last scavenger hunt. He looks in the phone book for all the people in New York named Black: over 400 in total. He vows to search every Saturday for the person with the last name Black who knew his father and refuses to quit until its done. He won’t take any public transit, has a camera to keep a scrapbook of all the Blacks he sees, and he walks shaking his tambourine to keep his sanity while dealing with the world.
 
The first Black he sees is Abby Black, a woman just recently divorced form her husband. She says he doesn’t know his father. He visits other people named Black who don’t know his father but reach out to him: one hugs, one offers her prayer group to pray over him, another is a cross dresser, another gives him a ride upon her horse. One day, Oskar goes to visit his grandmother but meets the man his grandmother refers to as ‘the renter’.’The renter’ doesn’t talk because of witnessing a bombing during his childhood. The two become friends in the search and he learns from the man when to intervene and how to face his fears. Oskar stars to sens that the man is in fact his grandfather. Oskar even plays the messages from ‘the worst day’ for the stranger but he cannot bear to hear and demands it to stop before hearing the sixth and last message. The renter than moves out and begs Oskar not to search anymore.
 
When all seemed lost, Oskar notes a phone number on the newspaper clipping his father left a hint. It returns him to Abby Black. It turns out her ex-husband, whom she was divorcing the first time she met Oskar, may know about the key. He does meet with Mr. Black and learns about the key only to learn it’s not for Oskar at all. Disappointed and disheartened, Oskar destroys everything from his search until he learns that his mother was secretly helping him all along and even contacted all the Blacks even before Oskar had visited. Oskar compiles a scrapbook of his search and is able to find the last link of the scavenger hunt in the most overlooked of places. His fears had been conquered.
 
One strength of the movie is that it uses a creative puzzle and the Oskar’s intellectual way of thinking to help Oskar through the healing process and conquering the simplest of his fears. The scavenger hunt becomes like the journey to healing and along the way the healing comes in the moment he least expects it. The scavenger hunt is also that connection where Oskar searches for that connection that keeps him from being completely lost form his father. He finds it and learns that his bond with his father is still alive and something that ‘the worst day’ can never take away. Another thing Oskar receives is the love and care from people he never met before. It was all the people with the surname Black he encountered that shares some amount of care for him from the start of his journey to the end. It was also where his relationship with his mother heals. It was her own help with Oskar’s mission that showed the bond between the two never died. It also helped her heal too.
 
One glitch with the movie is that it doesn’t make the best of efforts of being watchable. Yes, the movie has the theme of healing but many times it focuses on the pain Oskar and his mother are going through. Especially the scenes where Oskar is shown with self-inflicted scabs. There were many times I was sitting there feeling that there would be many movie audients turned off this movie. People who have lost loved ones in 9/11 may themselves find the movie uncomfortable to watch too. Another glitch is that many feel this is a flawed look at autism. There’s no mention of autism in the movie but it has been sensed by many critics.
 
Tom Hanks did a good job of character acting as Thomas Schell, the intellectual father who always taught in character. Sandra Bullock was also very good as the grieving wife and mother. Max von Sydow was the biggest standout amongst the supporting actors playing the mute renter. Interesting how silence can make a role more that dialogue in a lot of cases. Without a doubt, the movie belonged to young Thomas Horn. This is his first ever acting role and he shines as the boy who’s both brilliant, puzzled, grieving, driven and eccentric. He doesn’t play a sugar-coated child character but one who’s very three-dimensional. Stephen Daldry is one lucky director. Ever since his first feature Billy Elliot, each of his four feature films have earned him either a Best Director Oscar nomination and/or receive Best Picture nomination. This is his fourth feature but the first one where he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Nevertheless he does another excellent job in directing. Eric Roth does and excellent, if not glitchy, scriptwriting effort that makes this story as much our puzzle as it is Oskar’s puzzle. The score from Alexandre Desplat also fit the movie well.
 
Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close is a good adaptation of a 9/11 novel but it’s not the best at being a watchable 9/11 movie which has always been a difficult task. The effort to create a mostly watchable 9/11 movie continues.
 
And there you have it. I have now finished reviewing all the Best Picture nominees of 2011. My Oscar predictions are coming Friday.