Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 12/4/20

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MANK (CREDIT: Netflix)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Godmothered (December 4 on Disney+)
Mank (December 4 on Netflix) – Fincher on Mankiewicz.
Mulan (December 4 on Disney+, without the premium fee)
Let Them All Talk (December 10 on HBO Max) – Soderbergh directs Streep-Bergen-Wiest on a cruise.

TV
Big Mouth Season 4 (December 4 on Netflix)
MTV Movie & TV Awards: Greatest of All Time Special (December 6 on MTV)

Music
-Arctic Monkeys, Live at the Royal Albert Hall

Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ Demonstrates the Power of Renewed Resonance Through Reorganizing

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CREDIT: Wilson Webb/Columbia/Sony Pictures

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper

Director: Greta Gerwig

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: PG for A Few Bloody Knuckles and General Adolescence

Release Date: December 25, 2019

I’m a big advocate for the value of consuming a story in whatever order you damn well please. If you get engrossed in a movie halfway through and then watch the beginning at some future point, then bully on you. If you watch the last season of a popular TV show first and then catch up on previous seasons in a random zigzagging order, that sounds fascinating. If you always skip ahead to the last paragraph of a novel and also reread your favorite chapters before you’re done the whole thing, then it sounds like you’re someone who enjoys experimenting. To all of you who fit in any of those categories, you’ve got a kindred spirit in Greta Gerwig, who plays mix-and-match with her rendition of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 semi-autobiographical novel Little Women, one of the most beloved and oft-adapted works of American fiction.

If I were to extend my advocacy for watching something in whatever order you like to its logical end, then I could say that you could watch this Little Women in an even more chronologically mixed-up fashion than it already is. (Or you could go in the opposite direction, and I bet there is someone out there who will one day re-edit this film into a more temporally linear fashion.) But Gerwig’s chosen order of events is far from arbitrary. The opening scene and one of the final moments especially underscore the themes that she wants to bring to the surface.

There is a general air of light postmodernism to this movie, in the sense that there is a tacit understanding that the majority of the audience is already familiar with the story. Thus, Gerwig begins with scenes in which the little women are closer to, if not already, grown adults. The most iconic episodes from earlier in the March sisters’ lives do not need to be rehashed, at least not right away. Instead, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) kicks things off by bounding into a publishing office to sell a story she’s written. It’s bought by a Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), but he also tells her that if her main character is a girl, she must be married (or dead) by the end. Chances are that most viewers know that these are indeed the fates that await the March sisters, but a collective smirk is likely to form across the crowd at this moment, because we also know that the entire purpose of Little Women is that these significant lives are not just reduced to their expected conclusions.

The other essential moment comes when the far-flung temporal settings have caught up with each other, and Jo is fretting to her sisters that her completed novel, based on her own family life, is about a trivial topic and nothing important. Even though she is mightily invested in her own work, she is still subscribing to the idea that only “important” subjects are really worthy of being written about in novels. But then her youngest, always fiercely opinionated sister Amy (Florence Pugh) insists that the mere act of writing about a subject confers importance upon it. And so, because Gerwig is telling this story once again, and because it is clearly a labor of love for her, and because Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen are there alongside her and Ronan and Pugh to round out and bring to life the March sisterhood, all of that is the reason why Little Women is important in 2019.

Little Women is Recommended If You Like: Revisiting the classics

Grade: 4 out of 5 Adaptations

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,’ I Can (Mostly) Resist You

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CREDIT: Jonathan Prime/Universal Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Alexa Davies, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan, Dominic Cooper, Andy García, Cher, Meryl Streep

Director: Ol Parker

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Spicy Dialogue

Release Date: July 20, 2018

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again wants us to care about how a young Donna Sheridan (Lily James) met the three possible fathers of her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). Or really, it just wants us to accept that as the framework around which some beautiful people frolic around a sunny Greek isle while singing the songs of ABBA … again! Audiences who already dig this sort of thing appear generally willing to accept whatever thin framework there is. (The setup in the present day, in which Sophie re-opening her late mom’s hotel is threatened by rain, is even thinner.) So it feels petty of me to call out Here We Go Again for its vaguely drawn backstories. But I wouldn’t call attention to them if the script didn’t also keep doing the same thing. Donna and her suitors keep on talking about the lives they are running away from, and if that motivation is so important, I just want to know the specifics. Or really, I think these characters want to tell us the specifics.

For certain audiences, those shortcomings won’t matter one lick, but for me, Here We Go Again never overcomes the inherent weirdness of a musical. But there is some fun to be had along the way that threatens to sweep up everyone in its path. Certainly, Christine Baranski’s tasty bons mot (“be still my beating vagina”) cannot be beat. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman really lets the colors pop, especially the oranges. And the final number, featuring the entire main cast, including Meryl Streep as a beyond-the-grave Donna and Cher as basically herself, really does manage to be irresistible. I don’t want to be a fuddy-duddy, so I will admit I enjoyed myself, but I must say it all feels rather fluffy and empty.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is Recommended If You Like: Singing and Dancing Along Without Asking Any Questions

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Waterloos

This Is a Movie Review: The Defense of Journalism Mounted by ‘The Post’ is Admirable and Often Rousing, But Almost Quaint

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CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, David Cross, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons, Carrie Coon, Zach Woods

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Deadline-Related Light Profanity

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide January 12, 2018

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees some fundamental freedoms, but certain limits on those freedoms are understood. Hate speech is not protected by free speech, for example, and human sacrifice is not protected by freedom of religion. But there is not quite the same shorthand for limits on a free press. Publishing anything demonstrably libelous is certainly unacceptable, but when is it inappropriate to print what is in fact true and has hitherto been hidden? This question is at the heart of so many present-day media matters, so in comes Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which examines a time when this conflict was a momentous occasion and not an everyday one.

In 1971, The Washington Post finds itself in possession of the Pentagon Papers, a trove of documents detailing the United States’ involvement in Vietnam over the past few decades. Executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his team of journalists think the public deserves to know this information. The federal government says it would be a felony to print it. There is no mistaking where The Post (both the paper and the film) comes down on this conflict. This is not new information and thus serves no imminent threat to American troops in Vietnam. The only harm it can cause is embarrassment for former presidents. The actual conflict that The Post grapples is the attempted reconciliation between ethical and business concerns.

The constant struggle of press outlets, even institutions as big as The Washington Post, is figuring out how to make money by delivering the truth. That struggle is writ large when making a public offering, which is what we’ve got here. Do you make a stronger case to your investors by laying low or by making a ruckus in the course of standing up for your principals? As publisher Katharine Graham, Meryl Streep is all contorted faces and knotted anxiety as she takes the lead to make the decision of printing the Papers or not. The drama is wrung in screwball fashion, with Bradlee appealing to her over the phone at the last a minute, as a gaggle of other interested parties hop on the line.

For as grand as The Post’s ambitions are, it is strange to consider that most of it takes place over the course of just one day. It all then feels almost inconsequential, but of course, certain individual moments can change the course of everything. When that is the case, there has probably been months, or even years, of work behind the scenes setting up those moments, as conveyed by an early scene of Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) gathering and absconding with the Papers. Also delivering the dynamic agita is Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, an old buddy of Ellsberg’s who tracks down the delivery. Odenkirk’s comedic background is an asset – he moves about with a paranoid shuffle that is somewhere between absolutely necessary and hilariously unnecessary. Also rousing is a typesetting montage following the decision to publish the Papers. This mechanical peek at how things are done is a valuable reminder of underlying structure in much the same way that Michael Mann’s Blackhat spent so much visual space on the wires that undergird the Internet.

Ultimately, while The Post’s advocacy for journalism is timeless, its story feels small-scale, a prelude to the much bigger fallout of Watergate and all the modern-day scandals that use -gate in their nomenclature. The Richard Nixon of The Post is only ever seen from behind and through a window. His fight against the press was fought in the shadows, but today his same tactics are being employed right out in the open. The Post’s lessons are ones I hope everyone takes to heart, but I wonder (despair?) how useful they are when the sorts of secrets exposed by the Pentagon Papers are now nonchalantly tweeted every day.

The Post is Recommended If You Like: All the President’s Men, Spotlight, a Free Press

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sealed Documents