Monday, February 5, 2018

Popcorn Kernels: Best Picture Contenders, Vol. 1

In which I once again attempt to sit through all the nominees for Best Picture, knowing full well that the presence of Darkest Hour shall surely prevent me from accomplishing this goal. Here are two of those efforts.

The Post
Year: 2017
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

When the Washington Post gets ahold of the Pentagon Papers, which expose a decade of government secrets, they must decide whether or not to publish them, which could potentially shut down the paper and send them to jail.

Look, I admitted that Spotlight was good, even though it's preposterous that it won Best Picture. And I dislike the state of the country as much as any reasonable American. But as timely as The Post is, it will never feel like anything other than Spotlight 2 (and in fact, it was co-written by one of the co-writers of Spotlight, if it wasn't already watered down enough for you). And as much as director Steven Spielberg has proven time and again he's a genius, we all have our bad days. The Post is such a huge waste of everyone's time and effort that it's not even funny.

Not that it was meant to be funny. The film finds Spielberg in intensely sober-minded Oscarbait mode, with only one scene (the best scene in the movie, involving a little girl selling lemonade) providing a moment of levity in this grandiose, self-important, completely arid awards season trifle.

The Post has a cruelly inflated sense of its own relevance, tying the problems of the past to current affairs in the most blunt, obvious way possible. Look, I'm all for arguments in favor of the free press, but they don't have to be couched in a series of artless, implacable zooms while characters monologue about how important the themes of the movie are. It hardly pretends to be dialogue, it's just one long essay mummifying an admittedly important historical event.

It's honestly rather clumsy, constantly framing Meryl Streep in drifts of men to pointedly remind you that she's not in a woman's space, all while the dialogue revolves around her being a woman in a man's space. It's very pointedly a message movie, and while shots like that can work - I'm thinking of Clarice Starling in the elevator at Quantico in Silence of the Lambs - it's forced down your throat so hard you start gagging before the fifteen minute mark.

It's just kind of a generally lousy movie, bookended by its worst scenes (a shoehorned-in Saving Private Ryan moment in Vietnam and a hilariously terrible Marvel-esque coda involving the world's worst Richard Nixon impersonator frantically waving his arms like a caffeinated mime and not even attempting to time his movements to the actual Nixon recording posing as dialogue) and endlessly unspooling trite, uninspired dialogue in between ("That picture makes me sad," exclaims Sarah Paulson, hopelessly drowning in a nothing role).

There's just no feeling involved here, it's all lecturing. And considering that The Post contains two of the world's most charismatic movie stars, it's astonishing how this could have even been accomplished. Meryl Streep is fine, as always, but she's snoozing through a role she could play with both hands and feet tied behind her back. And Tom Hanks is acting SO. HARD. But no matter how much he rakishly props his leg up on desks or undoes his sleeves, he's straining through an inexplicable old timey radio host accent that just drips with insincerity.

The Post was never going to be a great movie. It could only have ever been a acceptably Important prestige picture. But the way it fails its actors and the audience so substantially is frankly shocking. The music (John Williams, again visibly bored) seems to actively rebel against the tone of the film, the script is begging for attention yet barely there, and the coterie of strong performers (including, randomly, a handful of comic actors like Zach Woods and David Cross) is given nothing to do but be conduits for a firehose stream of flop sweat. One to miss.

Rating: 4/10

Year: 2017
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance
Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

We follow a fighter pilot, a civilian ship, and some ground troops through the effort to rescue the British military from the beach at Dunkirk during World War II.

Dunkirk is about as boldly experimental as a big budget blockbuster can get. But the thing is, experimentation leads to failure about half the time. Not that Dunkirk is a failure; what it gets right outweighs what it gets wrong, but its open risk-taking comes with some very odd choices that don't quite work.

For one thing, take the peculiar dilation of time that occurs over the course of the film. One story elapses over a week, one over a day, and one over an hour. The film cuts between these stories simultaneously, and they overlap at certain key moments. But the way they are presented doesn't really allow for any more insight or intrigue than if they had just been shown chronologically. And the landing of a fighter plane is dragged out over the course of what feels like half an hour of excruciatingly long screen time, milked for all it's worth in the film's biggest patch of jingoistic militarism.

Luckily, that doesn't seem to be the prevailing sentiment over the rest of the film. Dunkirk is a film that is above all else about the terror and constant, oppressive violence of war (despite the conspicuously pulled punches of its PG-13 rating), doled out by an omnipresent enemy that is literally never shown, except in the form of bomber planes that whistle by periodically. It eschews character arcs and even dialogue at times (especially in the sequences on the beach, it plays out more like a silent film, which fortunately prevents Harry Styles from screwing anything up) in favor of this all-important, nerve-rattling atmosphere.

And there is absolutely no denying that this is an utterly gorgeous motion picture. Between what are probably some of the best airplane action sequences ever filmed, Nolan provides us bleakly stunning, expansive vistas that blast your corneas with the sheer wideness of devastation and desolation on this beach. The single distracting thing about the visuals is that - at least on the home video release, I can't speak to the theatrical - it has been decided that the aspect ratios switch between the footage shot on 70mm and 65mm. The black bars constantly blotting out the huge screen-filling vistas are hugely distracting and an entirely odd choice.

Much more thoroughly satisfying is the soundscape, which is as harsh and alarming as you would expect any good war picture to be, slashed through with Hans Zimmer's droning, atonal, staccato score that ratchets up the tension to an unbearable degree.

It's a good thing that Dunkirk is so visually and aurally stunning and goes all in on those elements, because most of the dialogue sequences are the worst parts of the movie. Whether its generals dumping piles of exposition on the top of your head or Mark Rylance spouting nothing but affectless patriotic quotes for the better part of an hour, these scenes are generally worth much less of your time than the tense beach sequences - especially a scene where bullets begin to blast through the hull of a ship where stowaway soldiers are waiting for high tide.

I'm not usually a fan of war movies, and I wouldn't say I'd ever want to watch this again, but I'm glad I saw it in the first place. If you've already seen Lady Bird, Get Out, and The Shape of Water, this should certainly be next on your Oscars checklist.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1306


  1. 1. Dunkirk's better in the theater. I hate theaters, and I'll admit that, so it must be true. I'm still willing to call it a masterpiece, but that is resting on the foundation of that theatrical experience (above all the sound--the fluctuating aspect ratio isn't great, but the balance and sheer volume of the theatrical sound turned out to be even more important).

    2. So maybe I like The Post a little bit more than I should, simply because it's the first Spielberg since 2011 that wasn't kind of boring. I realize this begs the question, and that I'm ignoring the fact that you *did* find it boring. But is it as boring as Bridge of Spies? I REST MY CASE.

    1. 1) I do wish I could have seen it in the theater for that reason, but I still found the soundscape to be incredible regardless.

      2) I was wise enough to avoid Bridge of Spies, so I don't have that comparison in my back pocket which might have helped me like The Post more.