For Tarantino, this time is personal

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This article contains spoilers for ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.’ Proceed with caution if you care about being spoiled.

The advertising for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood proudly announce it as “the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino.” This kind of marketing is the result of a career that has been built as much on cultural relevance as it has on quality cinema. A lot has changed in the film world since Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, benefitting form the independent film boom of the nineties, became a cultural sensation and turned the second-time director into the most talked-about man in Hollywood. The impact was so huge – calling Pulp Fiction the most important film of the nineties is like saying Obama was the first black President. It’s just a fact – that Tarantino has been able to build a unique career out of it. He is one of the very few filmmakers who will get close to a hundred million dollars from a big studio to make whatever movie he wants, on the promise that the Tarantino brand is strong enough to make bank at the box office. But this isn’t just another Tarantino movie. After decades of wild passion projects – kung fu epics, indulgent westerns, Nazi capers – Hollywood sees him do something completely unexpected: Tarantino’s gotten personal.

Running the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I am willing to say Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the most exciting movie in Tarantino’s career.  This might be a weird thing to say about a movie that operates for most of its two-hour-and-forty-minute run time as a comedy about good friends going about their day, but such low-stake vibes come off as refreshingly relaxed when in contrast to the director’s past work. Because Tarantino arrived fully formed, his movies have always seemed like the product of the same, incredibly talented, but inert artist. That is until now. This is the first Tarantino movie that feels like it takes place not in a cinematic real of the director’s design, but in the real world. Where the facts of history don’t only provide the setting for revenge fantasies, but the specifics of the situation. This is the first Tarantino movie to offer a glimpse not just at the director’s obsessions – movies, music, pop culture –  but at his inner psyche. Tarantino, who is nearing his sixties, is no longer an enfant terrible. He is an elder statesman, an institution, and it seems that with age, he is starting to interrogate himself and his cinema.

Let’s get specific. The movie takes place in 1969 Los Angeles, the year that saw the horrific murders in which members of the Manson Family killed five people, including actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child. This already differentiates the movie from Tarantino’s other historical epics, in that it is dealing with a specific fact of history rather than a narrative creation. While the “Operation Kino” that is meant to kill Hitler and his cabinet in Inglourious Basterds is a product of Tarantino’s imagination, the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends is pointedly not. Most of the movie, however, takes place six months before the tragedy, and focuses on the comings and goings of people in the film industry. Tarantino, who was six years old in ’69, recreates the Los Angeles of his youth with enormous care and wonderful detail (for this fact, he has called this film “his Roma“). And while two of the main characters are fictional, the third is Sharon Tate herself, making her the first real life protagonist of a Tarantino movie. The degree to which Tarantino is interested in following Tate in the seeming mundanity of her day-to-day life not only situates the movie squarely in our reality, (or closer to it than any other of his films), but provides the most tender reason for the movie’s existence: to focus on the life of a person who is mostly remembered for her death.

While Sharon Tate (played lovingly by Margot Robbie) reflects the movie’s interest in the historical record, the two fictional protagonists of the movie reflect Tarantino’s more personal interests in making this movie. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a television star past his prime, while Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Dalton’s stunt double and loyal sidekick. It’s in these two characters that I see Tarantino interrogating himself. He’s created plenty of great characters before, but never have they felt like they were part of his inner psyche in the way these two struck me as two sides of Tarantino’s own self-reflection. Cliff, the tough guy stunt man, seems to me a manifestation of Tarantino’s cinema: impossibly cool (Pitt, at 56, has improbably never looked better), capable of extreme violence, and with a problematic past. It is revealed halfway through the movie that Cliff might have been responsible for his wife’s murder. It’s not hard to make the connection to Tarantino’s past work, which is full of controversy – be it the liberal use of the n-word in his early movies, his decades-long collaboration with Harvey Weinstein, or the reports of endangering Uma Thurman on set while shooting Kill Bill. 

Meanwhile, Rick Dalton represents Tarantino as a person. He is an artist who has had great success in the past, but is now growing old in an industry that seems to be leaving him behind. As Rick, DiCaprio provides the best work of his career since he played the haunted conman of Catch Me If You Can. He has always been best at playing people who are out of their element and build a flashy persona to hide their uncontrollable fear of it all crashing down. Rick is a ball of insecurities, an actor obsessed with the idea that he might become yesterday’s news, not unlike the image-obsessed Tarantino, who has claimed he will retire after making only ten movies in order to preserve his legacy. The younger generations that threaten to take Rick’s place come in two groups: the murderous hippies of Manson’s commune, and the up-and-coming Sharon Tate and her group of friends. While the former group is portrayed with intense (perhaps justified?) contempt, Sharon and her friends represent a bright and loving future for Hollywood. Tellingly, Sharon’s friend group is made up of artists and performers, while the Manson zealots complaint about phony actors and violent television.

With all of this going on around him, Rick stands by his buddy Cliff despite his possibly murderous past the way Tarantino can’t help but stand by the potentially problematic thrills of his own cinema. It’s no surprise that Tarantino rejects the moralizing hippies in order to stand with the electrifying experience of cinema, but what does it mean in the context of the last section of the movie? As the brilliant Tim Brayton has pointed out, when the movie’s third act flashes forward to August 1969, Tarantino abandons the more “realistic” hang-outs the movie’s been inhabiting for his usual M.O., starting with a Kurt Russell voice-over recap and ending in an explosively violent climax. As Rick and Cliff band together against the hippies, Tarantino uses the fantasy of cinema to, once again, change history. Sharon Tate gets to live, cinema’s own violent tendencies become a force for good. The implications of such a climax can be deeply problematic, but have we ever seen Tarantino be this introspective before? This movie is the result of a man who is truly considering his relationship to his own art. For the first time, Tarantino isn’t just showing us the things he loves, but reckoning with them. Is such a departure a signal that Tarantino is growing as a person? Who knows. A signal that he is growing as an artist when we least expected it? That’s for damn sure.

 

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Notes on ‘Green Book’

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1. The People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival has, in the last couple years, become the “Privilege Myopia” Award. Four out of the last five years, it has gone to movies that in this day and age one would call “problematic.” Movies that try to tackle “important issues” in a digestible way, and thus end up adopting a simplistic, pre-packaged, sometimes offensive position on the issues. Last year, it was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, where British director Martin McDonagh tried to explain America’s violent heart and failed miserably. In 2014, The Imitation Game took the story of queer scientist Alan Turing and ignored the man’s sexual history, turning a fascinating man into a tragic version of Sheldon Cooper. La La Land had no interest in social issues, which is perhaps why it got criticized for positioning a white dude as the savior of jazz. This year, the winner was Green Book, which follows perfectly in that tradition.

2. Green Book is a movie co-written and directed by Peter Farrelly (half of the Farrelly Brothers who famously made There’s Something About Mary) in which an Italian American guy from The Bronx (Viggo Mortensen) works as driver and bodyguard for a famous concert pianist (Mahershala Ali) on tour through the Deep South. In 1962. Based on the premise alone, one would immediately call this a “reverse” version of Driving Miss DaisyWhat you wouldn’t expect, however, is for the movie’s political discourse to not be much more nuanced than that of a movie that came out almost thirty years ago. It’s depressing that the fact that Green Book has gotten a lot of awards attention (most recently five Golden Globe nominations) isn’t really all that surprising.

3. Film critic Richard Lawson has described Viggo Mortensen’s performance as “very gabbagool” performance, which is a totally fair assessment. Playing Tony Lipp, Mortensen is sticking out his belly, moving his hands, and putting on an accent, but I saw something else in the performance: I think Mortensen is not just playing a generic Italian-American cartoon but doing a James Gandolfini impression. His facial gestures, shrugs, the cadence in his words… they are weirdly similar of Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. My guess is Mortensen watched a lot of The Sopranos in preparation for this role, but while he replicated Gandolfini’s moves, what made the late actor so great was that he made it seem effortless.

4. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a musician so fancy he lives on top of Carnegie Hall. You know Dr. Shirley is supposed to be fancy because he speaks like no other person has ever talked before. There is a reason for the character to speak this way, since he is choosing to present himself as as elevated as possible in order to escape racism, but his dialogue is so incredibly laborious and formal that you couldn’t expect a single person -no matter how dumb- to not think this guy is completely ridiculous, and I’m not sure that’s the movie’s intent. Shirley’s dialogue reminded me most of when high schoolers try to write a character who speaks very eloquently, and end up using archaic words and awkward phrasing that reveal much more about the writer’s lack of experience than the character.

5. There is a false equivalency at the root of this type of movie, which presents an exchange in which white and black characters learn from each other in equal manner. You could argue that it’s a better situation than that other trope in which the white protagonist is the only one who learns from the black characters around them, but is it really, when you think about it? In order to make Dr. Shirley learn from Tony, the Doctor is presented as so self-exiled from black culture that he doesn’t know who Little Richard is, and has never eaten fried chicken until Tony dangles a piece in front of his face. It is of note that Dr. Shirley’s family claims these details are inaccurate.

6. As I mentioned before, the movie has gotten five Golden Globe nominations including one for Best Comedy. The positioning of a movie about racism in the Jim Crow south as a comedy speaks to the filmmaker’s intent of making a light and digestible story, which leaves me wondering about the purpose of this whole enterprise. Who will benefit from laughing about an odd couple trying to maneuver around racism? Doesn’t Green Book‘s feel-good message ring hollow in the year of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmanwhich uses comedy to intentionally deflate myths of harmonious collaboration and unanimous progress in race relations?

7. Speaking of comedy, there is a scene in which Viggo Mortensen eats a whole pizza that is clearly the funniest (and best) part of this movie.

8. About my theatre experience: Tony Lipp starts out as a racist character (otherwise there’d be no arc to this movie), so he says and does a  bunch of racist things in the first twenty or so minutes. A lot of these racist hijinks were met with audience laughter, which made me wonder… what were they laughing about? Are they laughing because they know that Tony will have a change of heart by the end of the movie? Pointedly, I wouldn’t describe the moments that were met with laughter as jokes. It seemed to me that something about the movie’s set-up made the audience feel it was ok to laugh at racism (again, not unlike my experience in certain moments of BlacKkKlansman, except in that case, I believe discomfort was the point).

9. About the cathartic element of the movie: Tony comes to appreciate Dr. Shirley, thus becoming less racist. One of the things that make Tony change his mind is the fact that Dr. Shirley is so damn good at playing the piano. I don’t need to tell you there is a long history of white people appreciating black musical talent. There is also a history of making racist exceptions for certain people within a minority group. “He’s not like other black people”, is something that you would realistically expect to come out of a person who has gone through Tony’s journey. Now, an exploration of that kind of racism would have been much more interesting and relevant to our current moment, but Hollywood does not allow for complicated character arcs when it comes to racism, so Green Book ends where that conversation begins.

10. The most frustrating moment in the movie is a scene near the end in which the travelers are stopped by a police officer. The scene is meant to echo an earlier police stop, while featuring a different (unexpected but not really) result. The scene is completely myopic about the racial injustice that still exists in America, and this is in a movie that takes a moment for Dr. Shirley to pointedly ask Tony if he would be welcomed by his white friends and neighbors in the Bronx. The movie’s answer is to ask Dr. Shirley to relax, to remember that we’re all decent humans up here in the North. As usual with this type of movie, the institutional elements of racism and its more insidious and covert expressions are forgotten in favor of uplift.

11. On the Film Experience podcast, Murtada Elfadi pointed out that, despite being called Green Book, the movie had little to do with the historical green books, which were designed to help black travelers navigate segregation by suggesting safe restaurants and hotels. It’s a shame the title is now taken, since there is probably a good movie to be made about this subject and Green Book’s main interest is certainly not in the relationship between black people and the book of its title.

Report from the New York Film Festival (for Alternate Ending)

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As part of my work over at Alternate Ending, I’ve written some short reviews to some of the movies I saw at this year’s New York Film Festival. So if you’re interested in that kind of thing, hop over there and you’ll find reviews of…

The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) and starring Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman.

ROMA, the latest movie by Alfonso Cuarón (Oscar-winning director of Gravity).

If Beale Street Could TalkBarry Jenkins’s follow-up to his beloved Moonlight.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggswhich started as a Netflix series but became a movie in which the Coen Brothers explore the western.

Below is an excerpt from my review of ROMA, which was my favorite of the four, and one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.


The festival’s prestigious centerpiece spot was given to Roma, which sees director Alfonso Cuarón follow up his Oscar-winning work in Gravity with a much more personal story. To say that the movie is based on Cuarón’s upbringing in 1970s Mexico City would be technically correct, but a little misleading. Unlike most directors who make movies based on their childhood, Cuarón doesn’t center the story around a little boy who stand-ins for him, but chooses instead to focus on one of the maids who worked for his middle-class family. We first see Cleo, played beautifully by Yalitza Aparicio, washing a tile floor and performing other domestic duties as family life occurs around her. The children of the house adore her, partially because her job is to take care of them, while the mother -who is going through an emotional struggle of her own- oscillates between sympathetic and cruel. At first Cleo seems to be an entry point for the movie to dig deeper into the family, but it becomes apparent rather quickly that this is her story, and that that’s the point of the movie.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL REVIEW

Support the Girls is an American Masterpiece

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Andrew Bujalski’s new movie, Support the Girls, is an American masterpiece. If you think this notion sounds ridiculous considering this is a low-budget comedy about the waitresses of a Hooters knock-off, you are forgiven. However, I can’t promise you’ll be able to forgive yourself if you pass up the opportunity to watch this excellent movie. Most of Support the Girls takes place over 24 hours and in one location. It’s a tiny movie, but it feels gigantic. It has enormous things to say about women, labor, race, class, and humanity. It moved me in a profound way, the way only one or two movies do every year. It is also hilarious.

The movie stars Regina Hall, who’s been excellent for many years and is finally getting a stab at lead roles, such as her radiant turn in last year’s Girls Trip. This time around, she plays Lisa, the general manager of “Double Whammies,” the kind of sports bar where the waitresses wear short shorts and reveal a lot of cleavage. This type of restaurant proves to be a setting ripe for exploration, and positioning Lisa as the central character gets rid of the sleazy male gaze that usually comes with movies about scantily clad women. As manager Lisa is the bridge between business owner and workers, and as a woman she is the safety net between working girls and the charged, potentially dangerous, gaze of the clients.

Lisa is good at her job. She is resourceful. We mostly follow her during one eventful day, in which she is faced with one problem after another, and never fails to find quick and viable solutions. One of the girls says Lisa is “married to this job.”She’d be the perfect manager, except that she cares. She cares about the girls that work for her, and that’s not great for business. She knows what it’s like to be one of these young women and wants to protect and guide them as much as possible. Despite a million things going wrong on this fateful day, trying to help one of her girls is what gets her in trouble with her manager. Being a human and running a business are simply not compatible.

This divide between professionalism and empathy is what makes Lisa such a unique and fascinating character. Manager characters are usually portrayed as ass-kissing weasels who want nothing more than to climb the professional ladder. Their desire to move up in the workplace is usually a sign that they have betrayed the ground-level workers, especially if they started out as one. But Lisa cares. She is a multi-dimensional human with real world problems and the movie is right there with her. There are no p.o.v. shots or surreal touches that get us inside Lisa’s head or anything like that, but Bujalski very explicitly chooses to share the camera with his protagonist. A telling moment comes early in the film: It’s already been a stressful morning when Lisa steps out of the restaurant and enjoys a moment of calm. She takes a deep breath, and the hand-held camera moves up and down very slightly, as if it was breathing with her.It’s a significant touch. One that signals not only toward Bujalski’s commitment to his main character, but to the movie’s overall commitment to empathy and being willing to share in the lives of other humans.

This is a very clear strength when it comes to the girls. You have Danyelle (Shayna McHale), who’s good at her job despite pretty much hating it. There’s new hire Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), a marketing major with a lot of ideas. And above all, there’s eternally peppy Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), the only girl who seems to actually enjoy working at “Double Whammies.” Thanks to this commitment to empathy, the girls are both hilarious and poignant, and the actors who play them are able to make up the best ensemble of the year.

What’s so effective about Support the Girls is that its characters are not helpless, or dumb, or caricatures. They have agency, dimension, initiative. They make choices, they collaborate, they try to get ahead. Some of their decisions are questionable, but we see where they’re coming from. The movie argues that these women have a right to have principles other than those dictated by society, and allowed to make mistakes while trying to live up to them. Lisa says as much during an emotional argument with her husband: “I can take fucking up all day long, but I can’t take not trying.”

Support the Girls positions daily life in the context of an America that keeps on moving despite its deep problems. It casts a light on the people who refuse to lose their humanity just because they have to go along and make it work. Anyone who’s worked a shitty job will immediately relate. Bujalski has pulled a magnificent move, in which he’s couched something profound inside a seemingly unassuming movie. His final trick is closing his movie by echoing the last scene of indie black sheep Garden State, only this time the loud screams into the void ring with the power of America’s working women.

Paddington 2: The Best Superhero Movie of the Decade

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Paddington 2 is the best superhero movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Bear with me.

Paddington might not be a household name in America, but he is one of Britain’s most beloved children’s literature characters. The Paddington books were written by Michael Bond and first published in 1958. Inspired by the image of British children evacuating London with labels around their necks during World War II, Bond introduces Paddington as an orphaned bear wandering Paddington train station (hence the name) with a label around his neck that reads “Please take care of this bear”. He is found, named, and eventually adopted by the Browns, a perfectly lovely family.

Those origins -plus the machinations of a villainous taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman- make up the plot of the first Paddington movie, which was first released in 2014. Co-written and directed by Paul King, this first movie is a complete delight. An all-around lovely story about a British family opening their home (and hearts) to a furry immigrant. That’s right, Paddington is an immigrant. He comes, like me, from Darkest Peru (or in my case, more like Whitest Peru). At the time, I described the movie as an argument against xenophobia in this very blog. It seemed to me like a prescient message at the time, and that was early 2015. A lot has changed since then.

Since then, we’ve seen a rise in dangerous nationalism across Europe, we’ve seen Britain vote to leave the European Union, and we’ve seen a deplorable reality show host become the President of the United States. The world seems more hateful than it had in quite a while. Then along comes a movie like Paddington 2, which catches up with the bear, who in the years since the first movie, has not only been adopted by the Browns, but by his diverse neighborhood. At a crucial moment, the Browns defend their love of Paddington to resident bear-hater Mr. Curry by claiming “Paddington sees the best in people, and that’s why he makes friends everywhere he goes.” It’s a quaint message, but these days it rings like a radical statement.

In terms of structure, the sequel is happy to take its cues from the first movie. From the treatment of the villain and his motivations (Kidman’s taxidermist is replaced with a greedy actor played by Hugh Grant), to setting up a specific hobby for each of the Browns that comes handy when they band together to rescue Paddington in the grand finale. The movie is setting the stage for a series of sequels by locking in a formula, and that’s fine. Not only would sequels to these lovely movies be more than welcome, when it comes down to it, whatever Paddington 2 lacks in the story department it makes up for with visual cleverness.

Paul King returns as director, and he makes a good case for being treated as the great next comedy director. Unlike most CGI creatures derived from children’s books, who tend to wisecrack and fart when they migrate to the screen, Paddington is envisioned as a more timeless comedic presence. He is naive and good-hearted, a callback to the well-meaning but often clueless heroes of silent cinema. A stand-out sequence in which Paddington has a go at being a barber is right out of a Chaplin short. There are references to Modern Times, and other silent classics, including the film’s climax, which features a steam train chase, just like in the best action movie of the silent era, The General.

And this is where the superhero part comes in. Perhaps the biggest irony in our current fascination with superheroes is that while these heroes profess to stand for justice and peace, they surely love to solve their problems through extreme violence. This is true of even the good superhero movies, like last year’s Wonder Womanwhich presented us with a positively kind-hearted hero, then dispatched her to kick some ass on the trenches of World War I. One of the most shocking attributes of Paddington 2 is how much it is a movie about solving problems through dialogue, kindness, and as little violence as possible. And not just because this is a family movie, this is a philosophy that the movie seems to truly believe in.

The clearest example of this comes when Paddington takes his kindness to prison. He is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and is sent to jail. But when he is put in the big house, with a bunch of rough and rugged men, the little bear turns one of the harshest and most toxically masculine environments imaginable into a perfectly lovely place, complete with flowers, pastries, and bedtime stories. This is when I first thought of Paddington as a superhero. His superpower, like Mr. Brown says, is “seeing the best in people.” And often, the best in people is their vulnerability. Would there be xenophobia, toxic nationalism, and “shithole” comments if we allowed ourselves to be truly vulnerable? Not all superheroes wear capes. Some of them are covered in fur, wear a red hat, and a stylish blue coat.

With ‘The Post’, Steven Spielberg completes an excellent trilogy about the Constitution.

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America’s never been great, but that’s not entirely America’s fault. No country is inherently great. No constitution, no matter who writes it, guarantees a country’s success. The constitution of the United States of America is no different, but that doesn’t prevent its citizens from being obsessed with it. America, in many ways, is obsessed with itself. Almost every controversy in this country is followed by commentators, politicians, and celebrities philosophizing on what it does and doesn’t mean to be an American. “This is not who we are”, “This isn’t the image America should give to the world”, “America is better than this.” We can debate whether this “American exceptionalism” does more harm or good, but there is no question that most Americans believe in it.

The ability to believe in this message of exceptionalism while simultaneously examining -even questioning- the machines that make it work is what makes the recent work of Steven Spielberg so fascinating. Judging by his movies, Spielberg is a believer in America’s ability to be a force for good. Moreover, he believes that the American constitution is a perfectly fine blueprint for achieving this greater good. At the same time, however, he understands that the constitution isn’t perfect, and more importantly, is not going to uphold itself. Being a force for good is possible, but it’s not an easy job. It’s not that the constitution magically created a great country. The constitution is important, but even more important is the belief behind its creation, that a country could be great.

In order to explore this question, Spielberg’s made a trilogy of films that serve as a lesson in American civics. Each of these movies interrogates the idealism of the constitution by focusing on the practical. Each movie shows what it looks like for a different democratic institution to try to uphold the ideals behind this founding document. The first movie of the trilogy is Lincoln, which chronicles the process of passing the 13th amendment that ended slavery and was integral step toward actualizing the “all men are created equal” element of the constitution. Lincoln deals directly with the notion that it’s not the constitution itself, but people’s interpretation of it, that creates equality. It also shows that achieving something as great as the passage of an invaluable amendment can be an extremely tricky process.

President Lincoln -portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis- is a wise and charismatic man; he’s also a cunning strategist. A large chunk of the movie focuses on the unorthodox methods Lincoln used in order to convince congress to pass the bill. Not everything that was done was ethical, not everything that was done was legal. There was extensive trickery, and lies, involved. But such is the democratic process, the movie argues. The juxtaposes the idealism of one of the brightest moments in American history with the down and dirty reality of the political machine. John Williams’s heroic score can swell while Lincoln gives a speech, and still the movie understands that idealism is nothing without action.

The second movie in the trilogy, Bridge of Spiesfocuses on the judiciary. All-American Tom Hanks plays attorney James B. Donovan, who takes the job of defending a captured Soviet spy. The first half of the movie includes a lot of Donovan speechifying about how granting this man -no matter his crime- is the right, American, thing to do. Not doing so, according to Donovan, would be forgetting the ideals of the constitution, lowering the standards up to which American Democracy holds itself. This is very much a movie about the cost of idealism. Doing what’s right turns Donovan (and his family) into pariahs. So much so that instead of throwing rocks at his house, an angry mob decides to shoot at it.

But Donovan just has to do what’s right. In the second half, he is unexpectedly called to East Berlin, where he has to negotiate the release of two Americans who have been imprisoned by the Soviet and East German governments respectively. Donovan, as played by Hanks, is the most heroic character in this trilogy. He is an everyman who is thrown into impossible situations in which he simply has to what’s right. Donovan’s time in East Berlin is, simply, excruciating. He must deal with two corrupt governments, impossible bureaucracy, a lack of sleep, and the fact that he has a cold. In Bridge of Spies, upholding the constitution and doing what’t right is physically exhausting. But it’s what’s got to be done. Donovan refers to the constitution as “the rulebook.” Adhering to the rules, he claims, is “what makes us American”

The trilogy closes out this year, with The Postwhich is currently playing in theaters and might just be the perfect capper. The last entry in the series feels like a much more urgent film than the ones that preceded it, and for obvious reasons. Famously, Spielberg first read the script for The Post in February. Less than ten months later, the movie was screening for critics. To say that the movie was inspired by last year’s presidential election would be an understatement. The movie focuses on the publication of classified information known as The Pentagon Papers, and the subsequent lawsuit that the executive branch of government filed against the New York Times and the Washington Post. This is a movie about how the freedom of the press is essential in a democratic government.

The Post not only deals with the Executive Branch, but with the “Fourth Estate” that is meant to hold it accountable. It’s interesting that the movie chooses to focus on the people working at the Washington Post. The New York Times was the first paper to publish classified material that made clear the government was lying to the public about the Vietnam War, but focusing on The Post allows Spielberg to put the focus on the underdogs. Not only because the Post was a relatively small regional paper at the time, but because he finds a very fascinating hero in the paper’s owner, Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep).

Graham is a very unusual heroine. On the one hand, she is an underdog. She is a woman in a position of power at a time in which such things were more than uncommon (and she only got ownership of the paper after her husband died). As such, she has a hard time getting the men around her to fully respect her, and is incredibly doubtful about her decisions. This doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong and courageous woman. If anything, it means the opposite, that a woman raised in a system that was overwhelmingly against her agency forged on to defy the U.S. President is outstanding. On the other hand, Graham is a privileged woman. She’s a wealthy socialite who spends a lot of her time at fancy dinner parties.

Because she is a Washington socialite, Graham is friends with many politicians, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. When she first hears about the possibility of publishing the papers, she thinks of her friend of Bob, of what this whole situation will do to him and his reputation. One of the most effective moments in the movie comes when Graham and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), go on about their friendships to ex-Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Were they softer on them than they should have been? How are the people meant to hold the President accountable be the President’s friend?

And at the same time, you have a whole group of reporters at the Post working hard to find and publish these papers. Graham might be at the center of the story, responsible for the ultimate decision to publish, but this is a team effort. It’s not just one person, it’s not even just one paper. It’s, again, a movie about doing what’s right on the face of fear. The things at stake are money, power, reputation. Those are all things that America loves, but those are not the thing behind the ideals of the constitution. That’s what Spielberg has been trying to get at in this section of his career. What does it mean to do the right thing?

At a time when culture is focused on nostalgia for the past. At a time where movies and tv shows insist on recycling the magic of the movies Spielberg made in the nineties, Spielberg has decided to go on a fully opposite direction. He’s making movies that have a classical sheen, following the legacy of Frank Capra and John Ford. That movies, in this day and age, can be bold and earnest about the thing they are about. That they can be transparently idealistic and incredibly honest at the same time. That there is a director like Spielberg, who can make these movies with such directorial aplomb. All of these things make me happy. All of these things, I celebrate.

The Lamest Show on Earth: A Review of The Greatest Showman

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If nothing else, The Greatest Showman captures the embarrassment of watching a clearly uncool adult trying to be hip. Like that one time your math teacher wanted to prove he was “down” and so he tried to ride a skateboard, or even worse, said he liked Radiohead. This movie is a G-rated musical about the life of 19th Century circus mogul P.T. Barnum. Each word in that sentence is less cool than the one that came before it, and yet, The Greatest Showman insists on trying to be a “cool” movie. It loads its forgettable pop ballads with chantey choruses, hip-hop choreography, and toothless dub-step sounds. But as everyone who’s ever been a teenager knows, insisting that you’re cool will only make you sweaty. A truly cool person doesn’t care if they’re uncool, and a cool movie doesn’t either.

Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, a man who began his life as the son of a humble tailor, but managed to rise up through will power, work ethic, and charismatic salesmanship. He established a “museum” in New York City, which was more of a circus featuring trapeze artists but also what at the time would’ve been called “sideshow freaks”, such as a dwarf and a bearded lady. The Barnum of the movie is a kind-hearted family man who wants nothing more than to secure a better future for his daughters, and decides to use his passion for entertainment to do so. He sees the showcasing of “different” people in his act (i.e. racial minorities, and people with disabilities) as a way to empower them. The Barnum of real life, though… That’s another story.

It might seem a little foolish to criticize a circus musical aimed at the whole family for historical accuracy, but doing that is the only way to understand how misguided the very idea of a movie like The Greatest Showman is. The real P.T. Barnum was an incredibly creative man, which made him a ruthless -and therefore successful- businessman. He made his fame through hoaxes. He famously presented a mermaid that was actually the top half of a monkey sewed to the bottom half of a fish. He also contracted people who looked “exotic” and built fake narratives around them in order to showcase them. Most of these narratives focused on the person’s race or physical appearance and would seem offensive to a contemporary audience.

All of this, of course, is sanitized by the movie. The most egregious example is the movie’s treatment of Charles Stratton a.k.a. “General Tom Thumb.” In the movie, Barnum approaches Charles, a 22 year-old dwarf, and convinces him to be a part of his show by promising him he will dress him as a general so that people will no longer laugh, but salute when they see him. In real life, Barnum did dress Charles up as a general, and as many other characters, and made him perform in a sort of vaudeville act around the world. Charles, however, did not just join the circus. He was adopted by Barnum when he was only four years old.

If you think that sounds like a fascinating story, then that makes two of us. Just reading over Barnum’s Wikipedia page is enough to make anyone agree the man led a fascinating life. There are so many tensions inherent to Barnum’s place in American history. He stands right at the crossroads where capitalism, entertainment and social justice meet. There is so many thing to think about when considering the way he made his name and fortune. so why on earth would anyone think that the most interesting way to tell his story is to turn him into an “inspirational dreamer”? P.T. Barnum was many things, but a woke ally was not one of them.

Apparently, this movie was a passion project that Hugh Jackman had been wanting to take off the ground for a long time. What exactly drew him to material is unclear to me. From the information I could find, he seemed to have been interested in Barnum himself (which makes sense), and not necessarily on this script, which builds a typically hollow “a man with a dream” story out of the man’s life. It’s very rare for original musicals (other than animated films) to be bankrolled by big studios these days. The bargain in order to bring this project to the screen seems to have been to sand off all the edges until you have a perfectly round, and perfectly boring ball.

Even the songs, which can turn even the most misguided musical into a cult object if not an outright hit, are a complete failure. The songwriters in charge are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the songs for last year’s La La Land as well as Broadway sensation Dear Evan Hansen. With the exception of one truly catchy number, all the songs in this movie are not only forgettable, but made up of nothing but empty pop sounds and cliched lyrics. I’d be hard-pressed to distinguish one song from the other, let alone have any kind of emotional reaction to them.

The decision to go for the mass-appeal sounds of top forty radio in the soundtrack of this movie is truly indicative of the kinds of choices to contribute to its ultimate failure. This movie wants to appeal to everyone, and ends up satisfying no one. You can’t say you’re hip one second and be unfathomably sincere and old-fashioned the next. You can’t appeal to grandma and the emo teenager at the same time. You can get a great movie by going for one or the other, but no good movie will result from playing it save. Two things that I ask myself every time I see a movie are: Why this story? And why told this way? The Greatest Showman didn’t give me a satisfying answer to either of them.