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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 5, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 01
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Spielberg's The Post an essential First Amendment call to action
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE POST
Now playing


There's no question Steven Spielberg's The Post couldn't be more socially, politically and culturally relevant than it is right now. What it has to say about gender equality in the workplace as well as governmental assaults on the freedom of the press aren't exactly subtle. Even so, at this particular moment in history both couldn't be more important. Working from a smart, inquisitively biting script written by newcomer Liz Hannah and Spotlight scribe Josh Singer, featuring superlative, finely layered performances by superstars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, utilizing a crack ensemble cast at the top of their collective game, Spielberg's latest is outstanding, this ticking clock procedural a thrilling call to action worthy of multiple viewings.

After her husband commits suicide, Kay Graham (Streep) instantly becomes the first woman in the U.S. to be the publisher of a major American newspaper, The Washington Post. While in the middle of a deal that will bring millions of dollars to the company allowing her to pay solid, seasoned reporters to break the tough stories that will hopefully help compete against The New York Times, executive editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) is in the process of urging his investigative team to break an explosive story that will put a spotlight on The Washington Post that could potentially undo all Graham is attempting to accomplish.

Turns out, The New York Times currently has their hands on thousands of pages of a secret investigation into the war in Vietnam conducted at the behest of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) in 1967. Four years later, with the Nixon administration now in charge of trying to extricate the U.S. from the ongoing conflict, the last thing the President or his allies want is all of this classified material chronicling the mistakes and lies of past administrations splashed across the front page of a single major American newspaper. After a temporary injunction forces The New York Times to stop printing these stories, Bradlee sees an opening he's eager to exploit, doing all he can to get a hold of these pages so The Washington Post can continue to do the job breaking these stories as he feels is the paper's First Amendment right.

Known as 'The Pentagon Papers,' these secret documents outlined over 20 years of duplicity and subterfuge by the U.S. government in regards to the Vietnam crisis, and their being leaked to the press in 1971 was certainly the type of scandal presidential administrations would rather not face. The issue for The Washington Post was whether or not Graham should allow Bradlee to proceed with the publishing of these documents in light of federal courts ordering The New York Times to stop doing just that. Say yes, and one of the most important stories of the 20th century would continue to be told even if doing so puts the entire paper in jeopardy of being held in contempt of court, not to mention opens herself and her executive editor open up to the possibility of being sent to jail. Say no, and while the newspaper would continue to run as it always has, the trust the public has in it to tell the truth might be lost forever, and a governmental assault on the First Amendment would continue forward unabated.

While this back-and-forth debate is front and center, equally there for observation is the examination of women, no matter how intelligent, wealthy or powerful they might be, and how they were treated in the workplace. It's a deft depiction, and The Washington Post publisher isn't the only one who has to deal with it. A key dialogue sequence between Bradlee and his artist wife Tony (Sarah Paulson) spells out some of the things going on underneath the surface of this gender divide with restrained eloquence, while Alison Brie's turn as Kay's daughter Lally Graham is of more weight and importance than I initially assumed considering the brief amount of screen time given the character.

It does take the film a little while to find its stride. While it does open with an incredible back and forth between Bradlee and Graham during a morning breakfast conversation, while there are a handful of fun little moments inside The Washington Post offices depicting daily journalistic chaos, it isn't until reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) actually tracks down The Pentagon Papers that things kick into high gear. From that point forward the energy and excitement propelling things forward is palpable, the clock slowly ticking to zero-hour as Bradlee and his team prepare to break the biggest story of their collective careers while at the same time Graham huddles with her advisors in order to make a decision that will decide just what type of paper it is she wants to run.

Comparisons to Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men are obvious and apt, especially considering that 1976 classic as well as this Spielberg effort both revolve around scandals and controversies involving The Washington Post and their investigative coverage of the Nixon administration. But where that movie had one solid thesis to carry it forward start to finish, this story has a number of tangents that must all be kept in constant contact for the varying aspects of Hannah and Singer's script to connect as they are designed to. Every piece of this puzzle has to if the story is going to meet with success, the last act a hotbed of tension and suspense that, even knowing the outcome, is simply sensational.

Streep's performance is masterful. Graham's journey isn't a straight line. It moves in a variety of directions, this intelligent woman understanding the path she has to navigate is unlike anyone else's in her immediate circle, especially the rooms full of men she is frequently at the center of. Watching Streep make her way through this sexist paradigm of entitlement and superiority is astonishing, the way she carries herself with such sincerity even as she builds up the confidence to stand up for herself and her paper remarkable. The award-winning actress doesn't overplay her hand, doesn't do anything showy or full of theatrical embellishment. Instead, she understands that, as it is in the news business, truth is her ultimate weapon, and as long as she stays true to her beliefs others will see she knows what it is she's talking about it whether they agree with any of the decisions she ultimately makes or not.

Hanks is equally superb, as is the entire supporting cast, especially an outstanding Odenkirk, the scenes at Bradlee's house involving the trusted members of his editorial board pouring through the papers in an attempt to piece them together as best they can some of the best cinematic moments I've seen in all of 2017. The ensemble works together beautifully, Spielberg conducting every member with precision. Add in pitch-perfect work from a crack technical team which includes the likes of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List), composer John Williams (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), production designer Rick Carter (Lincoln), Costume Designer Ann Roth (The English Patient) and editors Michael Kahn (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Sarah Broshar (The Last Survivors), the resultant symphony is worthy of a standing ovation.

Spielberg does give into his more melodramatic tendencies at times, spelling things out with a little more didactic clumsiness than I expected. But thanks to Streep's constant quiet dignity as Graham this rarely proves to be a problem. More, even if a scene here or there might be a little exaggeratedly obvious, there is something still spectacular in the heart-stopping visual of a determined woman descending the stairs of the Supreme Court through a throng of wide-eyed women, the unspoken truth of just what this moment means to all involved speaking for itself with a hushed authority that's awe-inspiring. Add in the obvious parallels to our current fight to keep a free, unfettered press that's under assault by a corrupt political machine unlike any the First Amendment has ever faced before, the importance of the messages at the heart of The Post couldn't be more imperative. Spielberg's latest might not be his best, but it may be his most essential, those from all corners of the ideological spectrum urged to watch it with an open mind and a clear heart at their earliest opportunity.


Hostiles a cold, brutally complex revisionist Western
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HOSTILES
Now playing


In a remote corner of New Mexico sits Fort Berringer, a prison outpost housing Native prisoners, the most notable being dying Northern Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a man who in his day played bloody games of cat and mouse with the U.S. Cavalry on a regular basis. It is 1892, and with the wounds of the Civil War still fresh in every soldier's mind, making peace with the past isn't something war hero and noted Indian fighter Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is keen on accomplishing as he nears retirement. Yet, he is the one assigned the task of doing just that, his commanding officer Col. Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) ordering him to escort Yellow Hawk and his family to his Cheyenne homeland in Montana so that the war chief can be laid to rest in the land of his ancestors and given the respect in death he's spent his life fighting for.

Assembling his best men to assist, the Calvary Captain unhappily sets out on what will likely be his final mission. Along the way to Montana, the small group comes across Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a homesteader whose entire family, including her two young daughters and infant son, were slaughtered by a group of marauding Comanche warriors. Blocker and Yellow Hawk, two men resistant to let bygones be bygone, realize they must now work together if their small band is going to survive this perilous 1,000-mile trek to Montana. Together, they come to an understanding as they face off against assailants both anticipated and unforeseen, everything building to a final confrontation that will leave all sides bloody and bowed, the survivors forced to make sense of a new world that's alien from any that they thought they knew before this trip began.

Scott Cooper's Hostiles is a revisionist Western in the mold of Unforgiven, Little Big Man or The Searchers. It is an angry film, a belligerent, violent and bleakly desolate examination of xenophobia and racism that is fearless in its willingness to subvert audience expectation wherever it can. Cooper begins things with an act of terror that is beyond all imagining, the Quaid family save Rosalie all sent to an early grave with an aggressive, sadistically monstrous efficiency that's suitably shocking. From there, the acclaimed writer/director sets up a story that on its surface is purposefully familiar: two warriors from opposite sides forced to coexist for a great purpose finding a form of mutual understanding, and maybe even friendship, by their journey's end.

But nothing in the filmmaker's latest goes as convention dictates. There is no purity to any member of this traveling band (save maybe one lone child), not even Rosalie, and even though after she joins them all the walls between the soldiers and their Cheyenne charges start to come down, that does not mean this grieving widow still doesn't make choices that are as uncomforting as they are problematic. Everyone here is battling their own past, their own prejudices as they all make their way to Montana, the horrors of war still stirring inside as they attempt to rationalize past deeds with the apparently benign and selfless purpose of the trip they all now find themselves on.

At the heart of it all is the inherent racism lurking at the center of U.S. policy towards the Native population, an assumption of cultural and social supremacy that refuses to allow those fighting for the cause to see the bigger picture even when its thrust their way with all the subtly of a bullet fired from a Winchester rifle. While an understanding between Blocker and Yellow Hawk might be in the cards, that does not mean the former still does not see his former adversary's way of life or cultural traditions to be far more primitive than his or Rosalie's are. It allows Cooper to take things to a place where the future for one character is literally whitewashed when the only path forward those in charge can see for the youngster is to assimilate him into their culture where all he knows and loves is taken from him instead of finding other Cheyenne to raise him as their own.

Not all of the director's points are made as well as others. The relationship between Blocker and one of his trusted Corporals (Jonathan Majors) is underdeveloped, and while I understand the filmmaker wants the audience to put the pieces of the puzzle representing the bonds the two men share together on their own, it's all so ephemeral the final scenes between the two don't pack the sort of punch I'm sure Cooper intended. Additionally, many of the other young soldiers tasked with joining Blocker on his expedition end up as nothing more than slack-jawed, baby-faced cannon fodder, the likes of Timothée Chalamet and Jesse Plemons all but wasted.

But other subplots work beautifully, not the least of which is an ongoing discussion between Blocker and his grizzled Master Sergeant (Rory Cochrane) over what should be the cost for all the violence they've seen and all the death they themselves have had a hand in delivering unto guilty and innocent alike. The Cochrane's performance is a thing of poetic melancholy, the weight his character feels from the morally reprehensible things he's done in his life oozing from every pore like rain splashing off of a faded cowboy hat. Where the Master Sergeant ends up isn't so much a surprise as it is a heartbreaking denouement to a life that can no longer find purpose in continuing to follow the orders he's so diligently followed for his entire life, the actor's pain coming from a place so personal it's destructive potential is without measure.

Bale and Pike are extraordinary, the latter's breakdown as she determines to bury her children on her own sending me into a tearful fit I never did quite recover from for the remainder of the film's 133-minute running time. There's also a nice, albeit brief, appearance by Ben Foster during the story's middle act that's ruggedly disturbed in its maniacal intricacy, the truths his character speaks dripping with a poisonous venom that's as repulsive as it is toxic. A special note should also be made of Studi's understated work as Yellow Hawk, the veteran character actor delivering a superlative turn that ranks up there with his best work as the Magua in 1992's Last of the Mohicans.

Cooper's last three features Black Mass, Out of the Furnace or Crazy Heart weren't exactly easy sells to a general audience, but no matter how one ended up feeling about them breaking each one down into an easily digestible synopsis isn't particularly difficult. The same cannot be said about Hostiles. Its myriad layers and moral ambiguities aren't sitting right there at the surface waiting to be explored. They're deep down, resting in the muck and mire of a human condition that hasn't evolved near as much over the past few centuries as many would like to believe. It isn't an easy sit, the end resolution a cultural demolition that, no matter how pure the intentions of the survivors might be, could prove to be even more heinous than the violence they, their compatriots and those standing against them all faced in a cold, lonely wilderness where every step could be someone's last.


Robbie's excellence keeps Tonya balanced on its skates
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer I, TONYA
Now playing


At one point in 1991 Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was at the pinnacle of her sport. She has just won the United States Figure Skating Championship and, in doing so, became the first woman in the world to land a triple axel in competition. It was an achievement few thought possible, especially her cantankerous, chain-smoking mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), a woman prone to smothering her child in put-downs and harsh criticisms, thinking that by doing so she's toughening the girl up for the hardships figure skating has to offer. If only she had known what was going to happen next.

Fast-forward three years, and at the U.S. Nationals in Detroit, Harding is once again competing for a spot on the Olympic team. But after an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) is traced back to her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his bumbling best friend Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), a former bodyguard, suddenly the skater's future is up in the air. To the world at large she's nothing more than a criminal who had to mug an opponent in order to get back to the Olympics, Harding now standing in the middle of a different kind of spotlight, one she could never have imagined having to endure the glare of when she started skating as an Oregon youngster back when she was first starting out.

The thing about entertaining, if oddly toothless, satirical comedy-drama I, Tonya is that it barely tries to dig underneath the surface or shows anything approaching complexity. While it does a great job of producing sympathy for its main character, and while there is certainly value in watching the madcap inept zaniness that Gillooly purportedly helped engineer and Eckardt somehow managed to pull off, overall I was left slightly frustrated and annoyed by the film as a whole. I wanted more from Steven Rogers' (Hope Floats, Love the Coopers) script as well as from director Craig Gillespie's (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) handling of it, and while I was entertained for all two hours I still walked away thinking there was so much more to this story just aching to be told.

There is a very Coen Brothers meets Martin Scorsese sensibility to all of this, and one imagines that is entirely by design. Rogers layers his script in a way that plays up all of the characters' most maniacal traits yet, at least as far as it pertains to Harding and Gillooly, refuses to make them caricatures. He treats them with respect, allowing for their clueless dimwittedness to just be another facet of their personality, not the focal point of who they are or why they end up making the decisions that they do. The same can also be said of Golden, but this mother born from the fires of Hades disappears for long stretches of the film's second half (something she amusingly comments directly to the screen about), lessening her impact and importance a significant amount as things go on.

But everything feels fairly obvious, and I started to think neither Gillespie nor Rogers wanted to burrow too far underneath the dirt, almost as if they were worried the audience would turn on their film if things got even uglier and more obnoxiously noxious. Sure the pair show elements of the physical and verbal abuse that reportedly made up much of Harding and Gillooly's marriage and relationship, but they don't do so in a way that achieves emotional resonance. Instead, these sequences are just part of the scenery, at times more played for laughs and shock value than to increase character complexity or give any fresh insights into the decisions that are made as they relate to Kerrigan's mugging.

It should be said that this is one instance where the inclusion of actual footage of the primary players during the end credits, especially as it pertains to Eckardt, is well worth staying around for. Watching the movie, I had trouble believing any person involved in such a farcical bit of idiotic lunacy could be that much of a buffoon. Turns out he is, one of his key monologues taken word-for-word from an actual on-camera interview he gave after the truth of his involvement came to light. None of which forgives how cartoonish the character is, but it does mitigate my misgivings towards the depiction somewhat, and while that's a small positive it's still a positive nonetheless.

What I do love about I, Tonya are the performances. Janney is Janney. She's been delivering magnificent turns like this for decades now, and it's about time everyone finally takes notice of just how terrific an actress she's been throughout her career. With that said, it's Robbie and Stan who make things click as they do. The latter has never been this good, and while he's always been appealing in motion pictures as diverse as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Logan Lucky, The Martian, Ricki and the Flash and Black Swan, I can't say I was expecting the depth and emotional range he managed to convey as the seemingly eternally befuddled Gillooly.

But it is Robbie who is the reason to plunk hard-earned dollars down for a matinee ticket. She's ferocious, digging into Harding as if her very life depended on giving the performance of a lifetime. The actress is the only truly fearless element working inside the production, never caring to soften any of her character's edges knowing that by refusing to do so she'll only make the champion ice skater more sympathetic as things steamroll towards their conclusion. It's a magnificently lithe portrait of athletic ego run amok, Robbie giving every fiber of her being to the production and in the process transcends it in a manner akin to what the athlete herself once did as it pertained to figure skating before things unceremoniously fell apart and the only thing left for Harding to deal with was disgrace. Yet I, Tonya still left me wanting. Kerrigan isn't a character, her side of the story left dangling in the wind. While Harding's version needed to be told, and while in comparison to what other, primarily male, professional athletes have gotten away with over the decades with nothing more than a polite slap on the wrist (and considering her part in this unhinged lunacy is one born of stupidity and not malice) the punishment that befell the skater doesn't feel to me as if it fit the crime, I still think having her adversary be nothing more than a footnote doesn't work to the film's benefit. But even if Gillespie and Rogers don't go for the jugular, I still enjoyed much of what their truth-is-stranger-than-fiction-real-crime-enterprise had to offer, and while the film doesn't land a triple axel, it's safe to say it doesn't go splat face-first into the ice, either.






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'80s singer-songwriter Howard Jones interviewing with Seattle Gay News ahead of Seattle concert
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Spielberg's The Post an essential First Amendment call to action
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Hostiles a cold, brutally complex revisionist Western
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Robbie's excellence keeps Tonya balanced on its skates
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