Sunday, January 28, 2018

Catching up with the Awards Season: Phantom Thread

Very few directors can build a sense of dread and maintain it through a three act structure like Paul Thomas Anderson. In his latest film Phantom Thread we sense a supernatural threat from its elegant title, but in this film ghosts might haunt the living, but they are quiet, serene, unsettling apparitions. The real dread comes from the living, especially those that enter the orbit of Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer of haute couture played with calculated restraint by Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he has promised to be his last screen performance. If this turns out to be true, he has left us the most enigmatic creation in his catalogue of amazing performances.

The House of Woodcock’s artistic denizen as played by Mr. Day-Lewis is a mixture of many famous designers, from Christian Dior to Cristobal Balenciaga (director Anderson became very interested in Balenciaga as he was writing the screenplay), and even the late Gianni Versace and his sister Donatella.  In fact, in this film the backbone of the Woodcock enterprise is Cyril Woodcock, Reynolds's sister, played by the incredible Leslie Manville, a frequent collaborator of director Mike Leigh, an actress who can speak volumes with a raised eyebrow. If Mr. Lewis’s performance is restrained, Ms. Manville’s performance resides in her Zen mask where the audience can project their longings and questions about this story.  Not surprisingly, she offers few answers, keeping her character mysterious and distant.  But when it comes to her relationship with the other characters, especially her brother, she is undoubtedly the commanding one.

On a weekend trip to the country, driving his car as if he was either pursued by the Furies, or wishing to crash, Woodcock meets a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who immediately becomes his latest muse, and moves in with him to his fashionable house/atelier.  They are a mismatched couple from the start.  The exacting Woodcock is bothered by any little noise she makes at the breakfast table, and all he seems to want to do is work, rest, and brood about the proximity of death.  And it is this death wish that propels the character forward, imagining his dead mother dressed in her bridal gown in his room, while maintaining a dominant attitude towards Alma.  But Alma knows that the way to a man's heart might just be through his stomach, and devises a plan where she can switch the established roles in their relationship -- a harrowing decision that adds a dark sense of dominance and submission to their life.

I was able to see Phantom Thread projected in 70mm film this afternoon, a rare treat from years past, perfect for this kind of story that takes place at a time when watching a film was the most common thing in the world.  Paul Thomas Anderson served as his own cinematographer in this film, although he gave his long-time cameraman Michael Bauman the title of "lighting cameraman," shades of what Stanley Kubrick did with John Alcott in Barry Lyndon.  Bottom line is that the film did not get a nomination for its cinematography, which is a shame because it is a sumptuous looking work.

I recommend this film, but only if you enjoy a kind of cinema that does not answer all the questions, and leaves you thinking about possible answers.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Catching up with the Awards Season: THE POST

The Post is Steven Spielberg's film about the publishing by the Washington Post of the Pentagon Papers, classified information detailing how the US government lied about the thirty year involvement in the Vietnam War.  It is also the director's chance to delve into cinematic territory occupied by such great films as All the President's Men, Alan J. Pakula's Oscar winning 1976 film about the Washington Post's investigation of the Watergate burglary, and the more recent Oscar recipient Spotlight, a film by Tom McCarthy detailing the investigation by the Boston Globe of allegations of sexual molestation in the Catholic Church.  Both films are hard-hitting investigating dramas played out in America's newsrooms, noisy, overcrowded work places filled with the clatter of typewriters and the scent of cigarette smoke.  They are also mostly male-driven environments, although both Spotlight and The Post make sure that there are females visible.  Can it be otherwise in these politically charged days?

Spielberg, of course has America's most beloved female actor, Meryll Streep. heading the cast.  As Katharine Graham, owner and publisher of the newspaper, she must decide if publishing such a detrimental story to the Nixon presidency, material that has already gotten The New York Times in trouble, is beneficial to a company which is preparing for its IPO.  Mrs. Graham travels in powerful circles, a blue-blood Brahmin used to giving parties where defense secretary Robert McNamara, the person most responsible for the escalation of the war, is a welcome guest.  But the newspaper business is in her blood.  She inherited it from her father, and she took it over from her husband when he committed suicide.  She is a powerful woman, the kind we ought to like these days, although she is filled with questions and doubts, as any other human being would be. Ms. Streep ably portrays the dichotomy of the character in her usual brilliant way.

In the lion's den that is the newsroom of the Washington Post, the lead gladiator is Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the newspaper, challenging the federal government at every turn in his quest to publish the top secret documents. (Of course, it was his son, Ben Bradlee, Jr. who led the Boston Globe's expose that is featured in the film Spotlight -- thus somehow linking the two films together). Like Ms. Streep, Mr. Hanks offers us a carefully crafted performance. Ms. Streep is unashamed to expose her Yale trained technique as she approaches her character, but Mr. Hanks is all Hollywood method acting, in a performance that at times tends to be quite subtle.  The juxtaposition of acting styles works, and their scenes together makes the film come alive, even when the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer seems to fail them.

Mr. Spielberg's direction keeps the action going throughout, but I find that he lingers way too long during the third act. Lately, the man is into providing us with epilogues. (The same problem I found with the conclusion of Bridge of Spies.) Is it really necessary to have Justice Black's opinion read out loud in the newsroom in order to stir our patriotic feelings?  And worst of all, is it really necessary to end the film with the Watergate break-in?  Is Mr. Spielberg hinting at a possible sequel (or perhaps a 1970s trilogy ending with the disgrace of Richard Nixon)?  I would remind Mr. Spielberg's of screenwriter/director Billy Wilder's last screenwriting tip:

"The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that's it. Don’t hang around."

Monday, January 15, 2018

Frances McDormand and her Three Billboards

Catching up with the possible Oscar nominated films of 2017, I finally got around to see the very fine Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film by that very talented Irish/British playwright and screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh.  The story of a teenage girl, raped and burned, while the town's police seemingly do nothing about capturing the criminals forces the mother (Frances McDormand) to take the law into her own hands and rent three billboards advertising the inefficiency of the police department, and especially the town's police chief (Woody Harrelson), who is dying of pancreatic cancer. A great story, expertly told, with a great cast giving stellar performances.  I loved the movie, and surely it will receive many Oscars.  My vote would certainly go to its fine screenplay, which surprises a viewer at almost every turn.

Having watched the Golden Globes last weekend, I was overwhelmed by the support given to the issue of sexual harassment. Most of the women wore black, and most winners included some kind of sociopolitical statement that mentioned the recent events that have exploded in Hollywood.

I was bothered by Ms. McDormand's attitude during the broadcast, in particular when she went up on stage to receive her award for her fine performance in this film.  Was it me, or did it seem like she was still acting?  Has she been unable to shed the role of Mildred?  Her actions and in particular her facial expressions seem to come right from the film, and not from an actress in a fancy dinner awards show.  It made her look like a weirdo, which she may very well be, but I thought that her actions were way too close to her character, and this deep association to one's work is off-putting and dangerous.

Let's hope that when Ms. McDormand goes up to receive her well-deserved Oscar (in this year of the woman, she is a shoo-in to win!) she finds it within herself to be more herself.  No need to show us what a great actress you are, this film proves it in spades.