Now Playing — Phantom Thread

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It’s probably not one-hundred percent correct to say that Phantom Thread is unmistakably a Paul Thomas Anderson film, but it sure feels right. The new cinematic offering is meticulously crafted, resolutely erudite, psychologically complicated, packed with insightful acting, and careens into compromised territory before it’s through, mildly undone by the filmmaker’s ambition to instill the unconventional when a more straightforward approach would do just fine.

Phantom Thread is set in London in the post-war tepid rejuvenation of the nineteen-fifties. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a revered fashion designer, with an elite client list and an ire raised by the most delicate affronts against his preferred routine. His professional and personal existence is kept in order by his spinster sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When he follows the completion of an especially demanding garment by taking a holiday, he becomes enamored with a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds aggressively woos her, incorporating her into his life as lover, model, muse, and dutiful worker bee.

The film largely operates as a triptych character study. With elegance and aplomb, Anderson renders the intertwining codependency. There’s a cunning to the explorations built into Anderson’s screenplay. The individual characters’ reactions reactions fold and flow like well-draped fabric. Day-Lewis and Manville are both enlivened by the undulating nuances handed to them, giving every last line reading shadings of surprise and thrilling discomfort. They are obviously and wonderfully driven by discovery.

Phantom Thread proceeds with a highly refined, classic Hollywood sensibility (Anderson has acknowledged a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca), imbuing a timeless air about it, a quality further enhanced by Anderson’s cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s lovely score. Even the film practically begs to push through to the last frame of its final reel, Anderson takes the obsession onscreen to a heightened level that feels off in comparison to the rest of its narrative wisdom. No matter how well-mannered the storytelling, Anderson always seems to want a point in which he sends amphibians tumbling from the skies. The third act turn in Phantom Thread isn’t as provocative as that, but it relies on a version of the characters that rings false (and, maybe more damningly, it is forecast with a painfully obvious plot point, hardly the sort of misstep to which Anderson is prone). It’s as if the normal machinations of flawed people doesn’t strike Anderson as daring enough. The audience must be tested.

For me, the chief disappointment is how easy it would be to cleave out the offending plot digression. Every bit of it could be removed, and the pathologies of the characters would remain in place, and would likely read as more intriguing. The ideas that drive the film would be even more profound. I’m sure Anderson and his most devoted adherents would strongly disagree, but the film loses its way when it most strains to expose the darkness of the soul. Phantom Thread is greatness, undercut.

 

Now Playing — The Post

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Even without director Steven Spielberg offering fairly unequivocal explanations of his motivation behind signing on for The Post — and working overtime to deliver a finished product as quickly as possible — it’s not difficult to ascertain the film’s sharp relevance to this current moment. For at least the past year, journalists and lawyers have been the power pieces on the misbegotten game board of U.S. politics, providing vital information and defense as a runner-up presidency does everything it can to surreptitiously demolish the very fundamentals of American government and society. And the power has seethed at those who dare to report the actions and ineptitude, tallying up an enemies list, tweeting it out with exhausting regularity. The Post is a timely reminder that the leaders can — and must — be held to account.

With a screenplay credited to Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, The Post concerns itself with the journalistic mining of a hefty tome of classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which took place in 1971. Collecting research requested by the Pentagon, the lengthy document revealed the cascading disastrous decisions of the U.S. government throughout the military involvement in Vietnam, and the corresponding efforts to cover up the mistakes by flagrantly lying to the public. It was scandalous, and the executive branch — headed by Richard Nixon — did everything it could to suppress the reporting, dragging newspapers into court in a major judicial test of the First Amendment.

Spielberg’s film essentially embeds with The Washington Post, as they first find themselves lagging behind The New York Times in reporting on the papers, and then taking over the leading role once the Gray Lady is hit with a court injunction. The prime debate about whether or not to defy an already aggrieved White House with new stories is waged between editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). The former is driven by an enduring sense of mission — that this sort of reporting is exactly what newspapers must do — and the latter is concerned because the media company she inherited is in precarious financial times, reliant on a public stock offering to stay afloat. A war with the U.S. government threatens to undo everything.

There’s not much doubt where Spielberg’s sympathies ultimately lie, but he is a shrewd enough storyteller to realize that the conflict must be even. Graham’s reticence needs to be grounded in good sense, otherwise the film merely bides time. Streep is an invaluable collaborator in this respect, quietly signaling the agonizing journey Graham must go through, weighing the cold business decision against the legacy of the newspaper. On the other side of the history, the decision is easy. Spielberg and Streep work together to offer the useful reminder that it was damned difficult in the moment, especially since Graham was being continually underestimated because she was the rare woman commanding a sizable media organization.

Streep may be the standout, but Spielberg has the clout to assemble a Murderer’s Row of great actors to fill out the cast. In addition to Hanks’s typically strong work as Bradlee, the film includes a great supporting performance by Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, a Post assistant editor who is instrumental in landing the story. In general, there’s admirable commitment from everyone involved — including Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, and Bradley Whitford — investing life into their characters, no matter how brief the screen time. While other directors might have settled for useful cogs in the machine to help keep the complex plot chugging along, Spielberg makes certain these are full-fledged people moving in and out of the scenes. Largely because of this insistence on developing a world with in the film, the stakes stay high.

Of course, I mean the stakes stay high dramatically. Then, as now, the dangers to the republic couldn’t be starker. If Spielberg sometimes underlines that point a touch too forcefully, he can hardly be blamed for such a minor infraction against cinematic restraint. When ringing alarm bells, it’s not advisable to muffle the sound.

Now Playing — Molly’s Game

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Molly’s Game, the feature directorial debut of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin makes a compelling case for his previous practice of turning his material over to others to shepherd it to the screen. More than most, Sorkin had the benefit of working for and with strong directors: Rob Reiner (back when he was at the top of his game), Mike Nichols, David Fincher, Bennett Miller, and Danny Boyle. This isn’t a list of infallible creators, but they all clearly know their way around a narrative. They know where to prune, where to smooth, where to enhance. Sorkin, engaging as his writing can be, knows how to pile in words upon words upon words. He adheres rigidly to his established model, which makes his film engaging and frustrating in roughly equal measure.

Based on the memoir by Molly Bloom, the film traces the trajectory of the title character (Jessica Chastain) as she careens from a promising career as a young athlete — thwarted by a freak accident — to an early adulthood of restless indecision, ultimately turned around by her unlikely ascendancy as an impresario of underground, high stakes poker games. In this capacity, Molly mingles with the obscenely overcompensated elite — practically all of them men, most of them carrying within them an exhausting toxicity — believing herself to be insulated from the abundant dangers inherently found among illicit gamblers, a misconception fully and finally exposed when federal authorities come calling with weaponry and handcuffs.

This prime territory for Sorkin: competition and barbed banter, the intricacies of a legal system ill-equipped to deal with the pretzeling ingenuity of darker human nature, and class struggle as verbal jabs between moneyed assholes and slightly-less-moneyed noble underdogs. And it’s difficult to deny that at least some of the storytelling possesses the headlong zing that can make his involvement in a project an automatic enticement. He also piles in information, ladening Molly’s voiceover narration with so much dense exposition that the film occasionally resembles an audio book with a few scattershot images attached. Sorkin’s solution is to make the images as hyperkinetic as his dialogue, a technique likely intended to add of jolt of energy that instead has a numbing effect.

Although Sorkin routinely gets in his own way, there’s a reason actors often rejoice at the chance to speak his words, and Chastain is a dream in the lead role. She is one of those rare performers who emanates strength and vulnerability simultaneously, and, as it turns out, she has a special aplomb — as the stalwarts of The West Wing cast once did — for making Sorkin’s viciously intelligent sarcasm sound natural. As Molly’s attorney, Idris Elba is a little less convincing, but when he and Chastain share the screen the intermingling charisma is thick and luscious as cake batter.

It’s a common and understandable trajectory for a film writer to parlay their earned clout into the opportunity to direct, usually in hopes of preserving the vision they tapped out on the page. I’d wager, though, that Sorkin is not someone who’s typically had to endure other filmmakers running roughshod over his work. Instead, he’s clearly benefited from collaborating with those who occasionally offer a challenge, saying with clarity and conviction that something can be better. In Molly’s Game, it seems Sorkin is out there on his own. Too often, he appears stranded.

Now Playing — Call Me By Your Name

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In the early nineteen-eighties, a 17-year-old named Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is, by many measures, enjoying a charmed life. He spends summers in a family house in Italy, where his professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) goes to be closer to a recent antiquity find. He reads erudite literature, he plays music, he lounges in the sun. Perhaps the only thing that could make the situation better would be the chance to put on his coolest Talking Heads t-shirt and make out with a beefcake intellectual, maybe while the Psychedelic Furs played in the background. Enter Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate assistant enlisted by his father.

With a screenplay by James Ivory (based on the novel of the same name by André Aciman), Call Me By Your Name is a marvelous mix of lyrical and pragmatic. In its depiction of a love affair between two young men — at a time when such encounters were still somewhere between gravely taboo and warmly accepted — the film is romantic without ever resorting to dewy-eyed sentiment. Instead, it operates with some of the sedate matter-of-factness that Ivory brought to his many period piece directorial efforts, but infused with an uncommon vein of passion. In a way that feels piercingly honest, the film depicts the ways in which come together, in fits and starts, eventually finding a connection — however fleeting — that feels startlingly inevitable.

Luca Guadagnino directs the film is gracious accordance with the material he’s been given. Although it is consistently lovely to look at (the cinematography is the handiwork of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom), Call Me By Your Name never degrades to mere travelogue, attempting to stir interest with little more than loving examination of the scenery. Instead, the Italian countryside and quaint towns provide a setting that is almost tactile in its familiarity. It enhances the sense of fully knowing who these people are, how they live, and what fuels their hearts. If the storytelling tempo sometimes lags a touch, it at least feels appropriate to the tender European charm of it all.

Much as the refined techniques of the filmmakers serve as an enticement, Call Me By Your Name is most elevated — becoming completely enveloping in its shimmering truth — by a pair of central performances. Stuhlbarg is marvelous as the father, inventively playing the character’s gently odd academic charm, which then serves to enhance a scene of heartrending sympathy and confession that arrives late in the film. Chalamet is even more impressive, interplaying Elio’s youthful impetuousness with an emerging maturity. Elio is equal fragile and forthright as he stakes out his identity on the cusp of adulthood, and Chalamet makes the contradictions work as a seamless whole. It’s transcendent acting.

Call Me By Your Name is lovely precisely because it doesn’t strain to reach that state. It is merely observant and honest, resolutely honoring the experiences it brings to the screen. Sometimes, it really is as simple as that.

Now Playing — I, Tonya

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Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl is a small marvel of gracious, empathetic filmmaking. Centered on a lonely, withdrawn man who engages in a tender love affair with a life-size doll, the film is primed for harsh mockery. Instead, Gillespie strikes a tone that afford all the characters a level of dignity. It is a bizarre truth, but it is their truth, and Gillespie does what he can to understand rather than judge, finding poignancy in the absurd. Gillespie has directed other films since Lars — some catastrophically ill-conceived and others simply easy to ignore — but going back to that early feature helps illustrate how strong his new film, I, Tonya, could have been. And it illuminates exactly where Gillespie went wrong.

Based on the true story of competitive figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), perhaps the only figure from that corner of the sporting world who can be called notorious, Gillespie’s new film is a proudly unconventional biopic. The storytelling is rambunctiously crafty, breaking the fourth wall and emphasizing the unreliability of the varied narrators as it traces Harding’s evolution from a wrong-side-of-the-tracks preternaturally gifted young skater to an intense competitor whose questionable supporters in her inner circle orchestrate a thuggish strategy for impeding a competitor. The film bluntly depicts Harding’s relationships with her toxic, domineering mother (Alison Janney) and her dim, violent first husband (Sebastian Stan).

The screenplay, credited to Steven Rogers, is bravely unsparing in considerations of the extra challenges Harding faced because of her upbringing in the lower echelons of the economic classes. Not only is it difficult for her to scrape together the resources for some of the spangled trappings expected on figure skaters, the judges and other ruling entities in her sport treat her dismissively, the disdain delivering setbacks in a sport where success is measured by judgements of taste rather than the emotionless determinations of a stopwatch. At its best, I, Tonya shows precisely how some people are forever kept distant from their aspirations because they don’t suit the preferred narrative of winners and losers.

But then there’s I, Tonya at its worst. Too often, Gillespie engages is the brand of condescension that Harding had to routinely fight against. While he remains largely sympathetic to his protagonist’s plight, Gillespie is too freely mocks those around her, most notably Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), the heavyset supposed bodyguard who was a key figure in the crime that made Harding a trailblazing personality in the launch of tabloid television. There’s undeniable accuracy to Hauser’s portrayal, but the film obviously skews him to emphasize intellectual barrenness manifesting as slovenly disgrace. The snideness of that tone starts to infect the film, drifting into other scenes, sequences, and characterizations. It’s not inherently the wrong way to depict the scenarios, but it is directly contrary to the film’s foundational thesis, that Harding deserved better.

If the overall film doesn’t always serve Harding well, the actress who plays her certainly does. Robbie is sensational as Harding, showing the drive, the pride, the frustration, and the vulnerability, sometimes all of the above in the flickering span of a few moments. With greater consistency than her fellow collaborators on the film, Robbie is honest but generous, affording Harding the simple yet important honor of striving to understand her context. Too often, I, Tonya relies on cartoonish buffoonery to illustrate the predicaments of its characters. Robbie doesn’t indulge in this shortcut. She plays the whole person, lost and pained, problematic and talented, and, above all else, willfully, cruelly misunderstood. As the film explicitly asserts, Harding became a punchline. Through her performance, Robbie restores some of the humanity that was once blithely stripped away.

Now Playing — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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It’s been a little more than forty years since simple letters in a crystal blue font first informed audiences they were about to see a story that happened in a distant galaxy quite some time earlier. Conceived and directed by George Lucas, Star Wars changed everything. The never-ending blockbuster era arguably launched two years earlier, with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, but Lucas cemented cinema as an inexhaustible source of product. Initially a modest but inspired fantasy story — with spaceships instead of steeds and lasers instead of steel — the Star Wars line swelled to become a factory of the crudely inventive, existing to perpetuate itself and feed the fans’ unyielding need for more, more, more. That it held the collective imagination for so long with so few films is a testament to the soundness of Lucas’s original vision.

Now, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Marvel Studio, the rest of U.S. major commercial moviemaking apparatus has fully caught up with the Star Wars model, and has perhaps even lapped it. New films are events and installments, standing on their own in wobbly fashion, always poised to tip and spill over into subsequent, preceding, or vaguely adjacent sequels, sister series, reboots, or spinoffs. It’s a battle for a individual film to be at all distinctive, much less boldly notable.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is officially Episode VIII in the sprawling saga of combat deep in the darkness of space. Recounting the starting place of the established characters and the mechanics of the new interweaving plots defies any aspirations towards brevity. The crux is that the new version of the rebellion remains at odds with the new version of the Empire, and most of the characters introduced in the film’s immediate predecessor, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, are finding their place in the mythos as those fictional figures who’ve been around since the nineteen-seventies are gently receding into the background. The movie ebbs and flows with the normal rhythms of the Star Wars films. But the element that sets The Last Jedi apart — that makes it the first film in the franchise since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back to truly surprise — is that Johnson plays to expectations only to shrewdly subvert them.

Johnson’s approach has already earned the venomous ire of self-proclaimed defenders of the Star Wars legacy. They’ve drafted asinine petitions in the ugliest example of fan entitlement since online entertainment pundits tirelessly groused that David Chase ruined The Sopranos by ending the series on a thrilling note of ambiguity. I think what Johnson has done is restored nuanced psychological acuity to a film universe that got bogged down in drama-deadening notions of good versus evil a long time ago. He looked at the juvenilia of the positive Force and its menacing Dark Side and wisely smeared the line in between. That gesture alone is worthy of plaudits.

I’ll go so far as to assert that my mixed reactions to The Last Jedi break down as such: the more it feels like a general Star Wars film (the fussy introduction of new creatures, the ponderous pontificating) the less successful it is, and the more of Johnson’s insurrectionist fingerprints are present, the more the film soars like a falcon. Despite the complaints, Johnson doesn’t dishonor the legacy of Star Wars. If anything he rejuvenates it by making the cinematic galaxy feel vital again.

On a more fundamental level, Johnson presides over the best-looking Star Wars film in the canon. The cinematography by Johnson’s regular collaborator Steve Yedlin is exquisite, and various scenarios are rendered with spectacular visual inventiveness, especially a moment of lightspeed heroism that stands as the single most striking scene I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars film. But the vividly beautiful shots and cinematic design run throughout the film, from the craggy, remote island where Rey (Daisy Ridley) meets Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to the vast, spare, ruby-light drenched throne room of the dastardly Supreme Leader Snoke (performed in motion capture by the invaluable Andy Serkis), a set that looks like it was imported over from some lost Alexandro Jodorowsky science fiction masterwork.

A major thesis of The Last Jedi seems to be moving this ongoing story from the staid repetitiveness that has too often defined it. Throw away old notions and embrace new possibilities, Johnson seems to argue. There’s a whole galaxy to explore.

Now Playing — The Shape of Water

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There is a lot to Guillermo del Toro’s filmmaking that I admire. But the prime feat may be the way he can bend just about any story to his jovially macabre sensibilities. There are times when the manipulation of the narrative machinery is a touch too evident onscreen, like the equivalent of steampunk prioritizing clanky decoration over functionality. Even in instances when I generally like the film, I can recognize that to be the case. When del Toro is at his best, rambunctious vision and emotional entwine with such elegance that it’s as if the resulting film sprung up pure and lovely from the loamy earth.

The Shape of Water is set in the early nineteen-sixties, at a secretive government facility in Baltimore. A mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaning woman there, largely scuttling around unnoticed, except by her protective coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Attentive and curious, Elisa is immediately intrigued when a strange new “asset” is wheeled into one of the more secure labs. It is a humanoid creature (Doug Jones) with amphibian-like biology, calling to mind — very deliberately — Creature from the Black Lagoon. Elisa bonds with the creature, eventually developing a fierce need to protect him, especially when a tyrannical project leader (Michael Shannon) decides the gilled beast can be sacrificed in service of understanding his anatomy to stay a step ahead of the Russians.

If Pan’s Labyrinth is del Toro’s genius dark fairy tale, then The Shape of Water is his kicky, kinky romance novel. Elisa’s affection for her waterlogged new friend extends to physical romance, rendered explicitly and yet with tenderness by del Toro. And the movie swoons with drama and aching hearts, flicking through the wide varieties of need — usually unfulfilled — that drive people. Although the central couple takes rightful prominence, the screenplay (co-credited to del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) takes the time to understand the pangs of regret that trouble most of the characters. Among these, the overlapping complexities of thwarted hopes affecting Elisa’s neighbor Giles are most affecting, due in large part to the wonderful, resonantly kind and empathetic performance of Richard Jenkins.

An uncommon amount of story is packed into The Shape of Water, all clicking into place alongside the themes del Toro chooses to explore, around authority, around outsiderness, around idealized fantasy, around understanding. It is about love and anger, about fear and bravery, about stark reality and the transporting grace of movies. It is about everything, it seems, that del Toro believes in with all his heart. His blissful enthusiasm in sharing these precious things is a grand gift. It makes him, flaws and all, a filmmaker worth celebrating.