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« Soundtracking: "200 Cigarettes" | Main | Cinematic Inverses: Beach Rats and Call Me By Your Name »
Wednesday
Dec272017

Reviews: "The Post" and "The Greatest Showman"

This review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad. It is reprinted here in slightly altered form...

If you take film critics, Rotten Tomatoes, or any review aggregate site seriously you might think that future Oscar contender The Post (86%) is a pricey gift from Santa Spielberg that’s come exquisitely wrapped for Christmas. You might also believe that the new Hugh Jackman musical The Greatest Showman (51%) is an oversized lump of coal fouling up your otherwise pretty stocking. Don’t fall for that anti-fun / theme=worth messaging; See both for a well-rounded holiday week at the movies...

THE POST
Steven Spielberg does like his bookends (think the candle procession in Schindler’s List or the framing of Saving Private Ryan). The Post follows suit but the contextualization this time isn’t entirely successful. We begin with a war reporting trip to Vietnam in 1966 and the story doesn’t end until Watergate but the meat of the movie is not in the political history it tries to cram in but in the minutae of the newspaper business and the sanctity of the freedom of the press — ideas that transcend whatever the current political context is (and thus make the film feel unusually timely despite the hairdos as that oaf in the Oval keeps attacking the press).

Are you sure we’re striking the right tone?”

...Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who owns the Washington Post, asks its managing editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) in the first scene between the film’s two leads. Their playful conversation turns terse and Ben makes it known he doesn’t like her interference. The push and the pull between the superstars, who’ve never been onscreen together, gives The Post its early spark.

But the film is slow and methodical and doesn’t really start crackling until its last act when the arcs of both characters dovetail as they wake up to the ways they’ve been compromised and make their final decisions about what goes to print and when. The Post might not be one of Streep’s greatest performances but her close-up on the telephone at the film’s climax, a moment which could cost Graham her entire livelihood and her family tradition, is one of the most electric single scenes of her lauded career.

Ann Roth always does an exquisite job costuming Streep

Elsewhere though, while the movie is inspiring and involving — the direction, editing, and design do a smart job of celebrating old school printing presses, and the relentless physical and mental stamina required of journalists — it’s also a little stiff from time to time. Blame Spielberg and his twin long-term accomplices Janusz Kaminski the cinematographer and John Williams on the score; all three are constantly foregrounding the film’s own importance visually and sonically rather than letting the gravity of the situation slowly dawn on you as it does so richly with Meryl and Tom as Graham and Bradlee.

 

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
While Spielberg’s film walks with confident, nay, cocky swagger, the new Pasek & Paul musical The Greatest Showman is quite a different more anxious beast. There’s no walking at all. In its place is brisk jogging, spinning, and much leaping to-and-fro to hold your attention. It’s naked desire to please is either adorable or triggering, depending on your comfort with the movie musical genre.

I am very comfortable with the genre — my favorite — so take that as you will since musicals are the most Rorschach testy of film genres. The only thing that triggered me was Michelle Williams constant alien smiling which was creepy and unnerving given her usually tragic screen persona. Hell, I even loved the bald rip-offs of Moulin Rouge! (a masterpiece which The Greatest Showman is decidedly not… let’s not be crazy) in which the in-movie audience calls back in song to the performers during the title track.

Hugh Jackman plays P.T. Barnum the infamous 19th century businessman who founded the Barnum & Bailey circus. The movie tracks his rocky rise to fame and fortune but only as a rickety makeshift conveyor belt on which to place big swoony ballads (“Never Enough” and “Rewrite the Stars”) roof-shaking belters (“This Is Me”) or those numbers which manage to do all things at once as they swing from emotional character beats to foot stomping dance parties (the exuberant climax “From Now On”).

I devoured the movie like the cotton candy that it is —  sweet, funny, colorful… and also weirdly artificial and empty but who cares?!  Highlights include the inventive acrobatic choreography of the Zendaya and Zac Efron duet “Rewrite the Stars” — which is an uber-watchable mix of the impossibly graceful and believably clumsy (their mid song tumble onto the ground is surprise bliss) and Hugh Jackman in general; you can feel the star’s passion for this show in all the right places.

The Greatest Showman has already been punished by critics, professional and amateur. It had some of that coming when it opted to cast a critic as the villain within the picture (you’re just asking to be trashed now, movie!). It even goes so far as proposing in the dialogue that critics can feel no joy. As for the historical inaccuracy gripes which are abundant online it’s true that it paints a far too rosy picture of a problematic-at-best man.

Still, if you’re looking to the musical genre for historical accuracy, you’re watching movies wrong! Musicals have rarely strived for realism — it’s not the genre’s forte — and calling this a “biopic” is like saying that Star Wars is a family drama. It’s technically true but entirely misses the point.

The Post is, objectively speaking, the better film. But if you’re here for its freedom of the press and feminist messaging (as I certainly was), you’re the choir that’s just been bluntly preached to. You’ll get everything you need from it the first time, so it might not age well should it win Best Picture in March.

 

Listen, objective quality isn’t everything.  The nicest Christmas present under your tree might not be the one you want to play with the most. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve already seen The Greatest Showman twice and had even more fun the second time when I’d given up the dream of it being “great” and could settle for embarrassingly earnest if calculated good fun.  Reviews be damned, I shall return for round three splattered though I may be with tomato juices.

To quote Pasek & Paul’s Golden Globe nominated and machine-calibrated inspirational earworm:

I'm not scared to be seen. I make no apologies, THIS IS ME. 

Grade: Both films B
Oscar Chances: The Greatest Showman is looking likely for Original Song with Costume Design as an outside possibility. Look for The Post to be a threat for a nomination in virtually every regular category BUT Original Song (and the supporting fields since its cast, beyond the headliners, aren't given much differentiating drama to break out of the pack with).

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Reader Comments (21)

Thanks for ruining The Post. I will trust other critics on this one.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJono

Nat

Nice reviews. So much to unpack here.

About the post, which i didn't see. I'm aware of Speilberg's strenghts as storyteller when it comes to bookending his films. Yoi mentioned Shindler's List and Ryan, but not Munich, which uses the same device and was compared to Post by no other than David Erhlich. I', more afraid about the stifness you remark that comes in between bookends than the scoring and cinematographer underlining the film's own importance visually and sonically. The latter are asdo Spielberg's trademarks since I can remember. Let's say I'm more tolerant of his "sentimentality" or "look, this is important; let the score do the manipulation thing!" than I am with other directors. Maybe because, as you say, he's so confident in pacing and storytelling that that doesn't bother me at all. Well, if I understood correctly, the pacing would be the real problem? Funny, because Ehrlich's review was thrilled about his "tik-tok structure", which is precisely what I found about Munich, my last favorite Speilberg film. Care to elaborate a little on this? Thank you.

About TGS. You don't need to excuse your love for eviyhing musical. We both loved MR and I despised Les Miserables, which you didn't. But I'm not to keen on the genre as much as you. So you always knows better, for sure.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

I've had to defend The Greatest Showman a LOT since I saw it, mostly against the historical inaccuracy "but Barnum was a terrible person!" crowd. Which... I get it, and I do wish the film had had the guts to go there and make Barnum more of an anti-hero or even villain. But the thing is... it's clear from the first minute or so that the thing is a fantasy, with approximately zero aims towards historical accuracy, and once I got that, I was able take it for what it was.

Here's the thing: It wouldn't work at all without Hugh Jackman as Barnum. He's the main engine driving this thing (shout-out to Seamus McGarvey, who is a goddamned wizard behind the camera), and everyone involved takes their cue from him. The Greatest Showman may be hokum, but it believes so wholeheartedly in the hokum it's selling that it works like gangbusters. I am unashamed to say I had a great time, and I'll probably be back to cleanse my palette after I'm done with all the more self-important Oscarbait pictures.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

Fair review of THE POST, though I liked it better than you and thought Spielberg brought much less of the "I am directing a SERIOUS movie about a SERIOUS subject" than I feared he would. I personally found it unexpectedly fluid and light on its feet, and much less "stiff" than, say, LINCOLN. And whatever subtlety is lacking in the writing, it's all over the acting, which is aces. Understated Meryl for the win! Loved Hanks, too - I liked seeing the sly, not-so-square, bullish side of his persona. At times it reminded me a little of his performance in "A League of Their Own," which is only a good thing.

Yes, the messaging is totally preaching to the choir and will find no purchase in the audience it *should* be reaching, but it is still totally what a lot of us need right now. Unless it flops commercially or there's some weird backlash, I think Oscar voters will eat this one up. And I am fine with it winning, even if it's not my favorite film of the year.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

Oh, and I am totally looking forward to THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, reviews be damned, because musicals are my jam, too. But that's the thing: every single one of the songs or musical snippets I've heard from this one have left me totally cold. (And I really liked the music from LA LA LAND!) I'm worried that will make the movie a chore rather than a delight for me, though it's not going to stop me from seeing it.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

Greatest Showman while not a masterpiece was so much fun and I loved it. Rewrite the Stars was probably my favorite number and I loved watching it on the screen. In fact I've been singing the songs since I saw it on Friday. My only disagreement is that I actually really liked Michelle Williams smile and all. I know it used to be more common, but I'm confused at why they didn't cast an actual actress who could sing in Rebecca Ferguson's role. There are plenty of great actresses who can sing and don't need to be dubbed over.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Loved Greatest Showman. Loved the songs, the choreography, the cinematography, the costumes.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

.........completely off topic, but does anyone else feel like if Darren Aronofsky and Paul Thomas Anderson fused they'd be the perfect film director, or?

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkris

Vulture just listed Streep’s performance in The Post as #8 out of all her performances!

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Agree 100% with your Greatest Showman appraisal. It was great fun but no masterpiece. And while it bowed to Moulin Rouge in places it certainly did not live up to the"Sparkling Diamond" and I actually feel it didnt try to. Instead it seemed to acknowledge what Moulin Rogue fans have always known - there will never be another. That being said, the anachronistic music and choreography were terrific and Hugh Jackman is The Greatest Showman. A movie version of "The Boy from Oz" should be his next project. I also found Zac Efron endearing in a way I hadn't since High School Musical. The main negative's for me where that the he side cast lacked character development and yes Michelle Williams just seemed to be grinning and bearing it. Miss cast maybe? Though PT's daughter's were wonderful and worked beautifully with Jackman. Over all a fun film and I'll be happy to go see it again with my mum having just been with my friend. On the other hand I wont be taking my hubby. Instead we plan to see The Post.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne

This is all very fine - but what I really wanna know is,
what do you think about Phantom Thread
by my favorite American filmmaker?
And Is Vicky Krieps tolerable? - is the she even pehaps good or great?!
Her acting in the trailer is atrocious. I feel.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

What a buzzkill Nathaniel. Your review seems light on substance and a bit heavy on reductive spoilers. @ Jamie: The Post will cross $1 million tomorrow after 6 days in only 9 theaters. It is on track to open with over $20 million in January 2018 during its first weekend when it goes wide.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarie

i'm confused by two comments saying i've spoiled the films. I'm always so careful not to include spoilers. Saying that Meryl Streep talks on the phone near the climax is hardly a spoiler! (or was it that i mentioned that it ended at watergate?Apologies but I geuninely thought everyone knew this story was a Vietnam era / Nixon vs the press story)

December 28, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I've been a sporadic visitor of this site for the past 5 years or so and plenty of things have changed over the years---- some for the better (e.g. fun smackdown, new content contributors and writers, etc). However, it appeared that Nathaniel's review remains polarizing, sometimes due to his questionable judgement and analysis; and also, there's always the poor writing...

December 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLovely Anon

I love when Nathaniel doesn't love the "right" movies and you all go crazy, you weiners.

December 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Nathaniel, I haven't seen the movies and I don't feel like I've read spoilers here. People are just too bitchy nowadays.

December 28, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

As much as I respect Spielberg, I have to say he’s not someone that makes me run to the theaters when his films come out. I still haven’t seen Lincoln and I’m lukewarm (in terms of interest) on The Post. The trailer didn’t help, but the cast is intriguing. In regards to the review, I’m struggling to find the spoilers that a few folks have complained about.

The music from The Greatest Showman doesn’t sound all that great, but I have a feeling it’ll work better in the film and then it’ll probably be stuck in my head after seeing it. No modern musical, traditional or otherwise, has dethroned Moulin Rouge! for me and I never expected this to, but it looks fun.

December 28, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

It's like Nathaniel doesn't even own his own website. We need to see some of the website of some of these critics here to compare and contrast.

TGS was fun and light and pretty and had nice songs and a pretty cast. It was fun.

December 28, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

I like Lylee's review because it feels like she actually saw and enjoyed the movie, and just didn't sit there with her arms crossed making a frownie face.

December 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMinerva

Nat: I'm kind of predicting that I'll not be reacting to The Greatest Showman that well. Not because I think it shouldn't have been a musical (in all honesty, the Barnum story without musical numbers would likely be just the worst kind of slog), but because it wanted to be the wrong kind of musical. It wants to be in a conventional comedy mode, when it probably should have been built to be like Sweeney Todd/Les Miz/Phantom of the Opera framework.

December 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Greatest Showman myth have been better if Barnum were characterized as more of a charming huckster than an aspirational underdog. I'm thinking Robert Preston in the Music Man. Jackman certainly has the charisma and intelligence to pull it off.

January 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

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