Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Phantom Thread

April 8, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-08 at 4.31.39 PMPaul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a sort of upper-class pornography — without sex or nudity, though; it’s fashion porn and, secondarily, food porn. The camera lavishes its fixation on close-ups of threads, lace, mushrooms, pastries. The people onscreen focus on what goes into and onto the body, the better to avoid thinking about the body itself. The protagonist, esteemed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), surrounds himself with women but seems interested in them only as walls on which to hang his art, or assistants in making his art. He has successfully created an elegant bubble in which his various servants perpetuate his lockstep routines and he gets to play the difficult, complicated genius.

The hero of Phantom Thread is not Reynolds, or even his enabling sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville); it’s Alma Elsen (Vicky Krieps), a waitress drawn into Reynolds’ sphere after Reynolds has discarded his latest muse/lover and is possibly on the lookout for another. Alma, however, as we gradually learn, is not interested in being the typical muse, the victim, the martyr to a man’s greatness. She insists on her own humanity, perhaps because she understands Reynolds’ humanity more than most do. If Reynolds is meant in any way as an avatar for Anderson, Phantom Thread is the idiosyncratic and ambitious filmmaker’s self-satire. The character of Reynolds, though, at least on paper, feels a bit warmed-over — we’ve seen this rigid mad genius before.

What Anderson and Day-Lewis bring to him is a kind of sneaky dark libido, acted on, if not sexually, then in a thousand sublimated ways. He dominates as surely as does a Dom/me in BDSM play. In that respect, Phantom Thread follows from Anderson’s 2012 Hegelian reverie The Master; in both, the student, as they tirelessly say, becomes the master. Here, though, we get a rich aroma of a gothic stew — a good deal of talk about ghosts, literal and metaphorical; the turn two-thirds of the way through into the overt macabre; the title itself, which seems to refer to the invisible string connecting us all but could also signify the unseen messages Reynolds stashes in the linings of each dress.

Phantom Thread, shown in some theaters in colossal 70mm, harks back to the super-extra blockbuster dramas of the ‘50s, the ones shot in creamy Technicolor and drenched in repressed flop sweat. The dynamic between Reynolds and Cyril, and between him and the various muses he wishes to control, carries a faint whiff of Vertigo. As in other recent Anderson films, the mood is sexually impacted and obstinately uncanny. It could also be adapted to the stage with little trouble — I think a daydream near the end is the only exterior shot in the movie — yet fluently speaks the language of pure cinema. Even if Anderson has moved on from Altman and Scorsese to Hitchcock and Ophuls, he seems slowly to be irising in on the essence of whatever overstory he wants his career to tell — getting closer to whatever he’s been getting at for twenty-odd years.

Reynolds has a preoccupation with his dead mother, from whom he learned his trade, but the movie doesn’t suggest that he’s resurrecting Mom over and over every time he sculpts the perfect dress to bring out any woman’s beauty. Rather, his ego seems to want to displace the importance of his mother, leaving footprints that dwarf hers, while dismissing his father entirely (his only meaningful exchange with a male in the whole movie is a couple of disdainful shots at a young doctor). The psychology is tangled and doesn’t always track smoothly, but aesthetically it’s usually surprising and entertaining. I think if you don’t hold the movie’s pompous style against it — if you accept its style as part of the movie’s oblique point about creativity — Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most satisfying whatsit yet about the beasts red in tooth and claw beneath the politesse of what is amusingly called society.

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Journey’s End

March 25, 2018

journeys endThe necessarily melancholy Journey’s End, a World War I drama, has been around a while. How long? A 21-year-old Laurence Olivier made his first big splash in the source material, R.C. Sherriff’s well-regarded play, in 1928. The current film version is the fifth such adaptation; the first was James Whale’s debut, in 1930. And yet it doesn’t feel old, perhaps because Sherriff, an army officer in the war, left any cant out of it. No one harrumphs on about the glory of sacrifice — or the insanity of war. It’s just these men, many barely old enough to harvest whiskers, waiting for their turn to step into the bear trap. At the time the tale is told (March 1918, or roughly a century ago), the war is still eight months away from armistice — plenty of time for many thousands more men to die in the mud.

A newcomer to the material might expect Journey’s End to follow Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a wet-eared though not toffee-nosed young officer who asks to be assigned to the company commanded by a pre-war friend, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, stepping into Olivier’s big shoes). But the  story, at least as told here, focuses more on Stanhope, human wreckage trying to hold himself together with whiskey, and his friendship with his second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany, looking more than ever like the young Max von Sydow). Raleigh is more of an object here, a thing that introduces drama and brings Stanhope’s tensions to the fore. Stanhope, you see, was involved with Raleigh’s sister, and if Raleigh writes a letter to her mentioning what a mess her brother has become…

This string of the narrative is standard dramaturgy that could, in theory, unfold anywhere (Raleigh is off to medical school and discovers old chum Stanhope, an anxiety-ridden third-year resident popping pills to stay awake). But here it’s linked to the war and the agony of dread it causes all the men — existential dread to the nth degree, the horror of a man watching an unknown other man gurgle and die in the muck, and knowing there’s no reason he himself is alive (for now) and the other is not. A good part of the action happens offstage — or offscreen, rather — betraying the film’s origins on the boards; a major character dies out of our sight, which we don’t expect to happen in a movie. (It does, however, make for a delayed jolt that films don’t usually do, but which is part of a playwright’s bag of tricks.)

Directed by Saul Dibb (Suite Française) mostly with hushed intimacy, Journey’s End lets off a few bangs — most of the combat is reserved for the third act — but is often found picking up the sounds of a straight razor scraping off stubble, or a cigarette torching into life, or an exhausted soldier sipping tea that tastes of onions. Indeed, all the senses are engaged here, the narrative slowed down just enough for us to share in the tactility of the men’s discomfort. The actors scale down their performances accordingly; Claflin has the flashier role, getting drunk and upbraiding everyone around him (most of the men absorb his abuse with a shrug), but is also allowed quieter moments to create pockets of fear and sickness.

It’s all a bit of a lad’s tale — we’re on the movie’s home stretch before we see our first female face (with no voice) — and a white lad’s tale, too. (Someday soon we may see a film about the Harlem Hellfighters, or perhaps a biopic of Dorothy Lawrence.) Period war movies may be the only genre left that can plausibly ignore the modern (and justified) demand for diversity; the least such movies can do is reveal the cracks in the façade of privilege, and Journey’s End does so. A good portion of the film’s pathos lies in the pained smile of Paul Bettany’s Osborne, a schoolmaster in pre-war life, who has seen the apocalypse of the new mechanized way of war. In the face of the mass meat grinder of the war that was supposed to end all wars, a man can try to retain some humanity. That’s about it.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

February 11, 2018

Denzel Washington stars in ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.Public payphones have faded from the national landscape to such a degree that it brings us up short when we’re reminded they still exist. The titular hero of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) is a walking anachronism — he seems to exist in several different decades other than this one. His fro, his mashing up an iPod with nerdily large earphones, his very soul and rhetoric speak of a man who refuses to be tied down to anything so fleeting as time. He’ll plant his own roots on his own land. So in one scene you’ll see Roman checking several payphones for change, and in another there’ll be a reference to Uber. Like its namesake, Roman is ambitious and wonky and all over the place.

It’s a vibe that owes a lot to the seventies, to whose gritty, inward-directed aesthetic the writer-director, Dan Gilroy, genuflects in this movie and his previous Nightcrawler. You can say a lot about these movies, but you can’t say they’re safe or stale. Actors like Washington or Jake Gyllenhaal rove through Gilroy’s tales, white-hot and solipsistic. Washington’s Roman doesn’t really seem able to relate to whoever’s in front of him. He’s an idealist in the general sense, and he has a radical streak, but it’s wedded to his identity as an in-the-rear-with-the-gear lawyer — not a trial lawyer — with a possibly neuroatypical facility for recalling legal data. In his head, he’s a moral crusader, but in reality he’s just been dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for a failing, even corrupt, two-person law firm. Then the other person dies, and Roman’s story begins.

Roman’s firm and cases are subsumed into a larger firm headed by slickster George Pierce (Colin Farrell), Roman’s partner’s former student. In truth, Pierce has a more gratifying character arc than Roman does, or maybe a more movie-ish one. Pierce seems to exist in a more hopeful reality capable of redemption, a reality that Roman thought he lived in for decades and now rejects. Roman J. Israel, Esq. turns out to be about nothing less than a man’s mind breaking a bit when confronted with its own possible irrelevance, his values akilter, his moral compass magnetized into chaos. He loses himself, indulges in childish appetites.

Washington has been doing some hard work in the realm of idiosyncrasy lately, and in this movie he finds a kind of lyricism in a complex computer who stops computing. In opposition to the slicker but morally chaotic Roman we have Pierce, who gathers layers of compassion — he’s been looking for a Don Quixote to replace what his teacher once was to him, and almost seems to see Roman as a father figure. That’s obvious from the way Pierce responds to a breach of protocol on Roman’s part that may have cost a young client his life. Instead of firing him, Pierce comes to see Roman’s virtues and actually restructures his firm to reflect what he thinks Roman’s values are. Or were.

A motif through all of this is the major brick-like thing Roman has been toiling on for years, the legal brief that calls out the entire system itself. With help from a Farrell performance that starts icy but warms up, Pierce seems poised to help Roman carry the weight. The movie ends up saying that ideals will survive the cracked human containers who cart them around. On a thematic level, this resounds and makes intellectual sense to us. On a basic plot level, it seems pointlessly downbeat, even nihilistic. The movie seems to be in conflict with itself, in harmony with its hero. Like many of those ‘70s films cherished by film nerds, Roman is more beautiful for its flaws; it’s cantankerous and possibly insufferable and the sort of shot in the dark that grows in memory.

A Fantastic Woman

February 4, 2018

fantasticwomanThe low-key but affecting Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman, one of 2017’s Best Foreign Language Film nominees, restores the smooth melancholic power of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Time,” long a staple of easy-listening radio. Here it feels like a deep bruise of loss. A Fantastic Woman uses the common grief narrative and the less common transgender narrative to illuminate each other. Marina (Daniela Vega) is involved with an older but smitten businessman, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). After a night out for Marina’s birthday, followed by a loving night in, Orlando wakes up feeling ominously poorly. Within hours he is dying of an aneurysm, while she is symbolically locked out of the room where he is being ineffectually treated. The Parsons ballad plays twice — first during their last dance, when the song carries less meaning because we don’t yet know it’s their last dance, and then under the end credits, when it may bring a tear.

Marina is a transgender woman, and it becomes apparent that Orlando’s family hates her and considers her a freak — though I imagine they would also hate her if she were cisgender. Marina’s being transgender just gives Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) and adult though childish son (Nicolás Saavedra) something to fixate on. Others make it an issue, too, and against the dramatic backdrop of Marina’s grief and loneliness, A Fantastic Woman shows the thousand cuts transgender people weather daily, the endless, casually dealt challenges to their dignity and humanity, the misgendering and prurience about their bodies.

What sets the movie apart and may make it a cult favorite is that the director, Sebastián Lelio, gives Marina a poker face that hides a more flamboyant view of herself. A fantasy sequence finds her doing one of those empowering Living Out Loud center-of-(positive)-attention dances in a club; right afterward, she walks home alone in the rain, but for a while, anyway, Marina transcends her world. A waitress by day, Marina is also an up-and-coming singer (Daniela Vega, also a singer as well as transgender herself, has a lovely voice); this seems to indicate the partitioned lives and identities of transpeople. Marina’s case attracts the attention of a detective named Adriana (Amparo Noguera), whose curiosity about Marina seems ambiguous. In a roundabout way, Adriana seems to think Marina killed Orlando in self-defense. Adriana has seen many cases involving transpeople, you see, and she knows how often they are assaulted. I can’t decide whether this reasoning is transphobic or bitterly realistic or both. But because her job demands it, Adriana must think in this way, and Marina must contend with many other people who think that way, or worse.

The scene in which Orlando’s belligerent son and other family members take Marina for a non-consenting ride is uniquely upsetting, even though, other than wrapping Scotch tape around her head (a weird, weird detail that’s meant to silence her and temporarily deforms her), they don’t physically harm her. It’s good, I guess, that this and a few standard epithets are all they have in them; their bark is worse than their bite, and even that is a tinny “arf.” It’s debatable whether that’s worse than the scene in which she’s forced to bare first her upper half, then her lower half, for the camera of a police doctor. Or when she has to show her ID, which legally still displays her “deadname.” Or when Orlando’s ex-wife deadnames her. People like Marina of necessity develop a wary relationship to society, and the one person who loved her for who she was is dead.

A Fantastic Woman is and isn’t an ironic title; Marina strives to be read as an average, un-fantastic woman, but there’s that chanteuse side of her, the side that fantasizes being lifted up on the dance floor. Marina daydreams about the glamour she thinks she can’t have, but there’s a serene glamour in keeping one’s composure despite minute-by-minute chips taken out of one’s self-esteem, a million microaggressions. These concepts, obscure to the cisgender viewer, are smoothly advanced by way of a tragic tale of lost love. Essentially, like Living Out Loud and Truly, Madly, Deeply and a ton of others, it’s about a grieving woman who learns how to move on; such movies’ success depends more on what they do with this subject than on how original the subject is. A Fantastic Woman lets us see grief through a fresh pair of eyes.

 

Lady Bird

January 28, 2018

lady-bird-nytGreta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is one of the nine films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It doesn’t seem to fit the description — it’s wee, technically modest, undemonstrative to the point of obliqueness — and I don’t know that I’d put money on it myself, but the more time I have away from it, the more warmth I feel for it. It’s cozy; it’s fine. Its brushstrokes are light, and it never overextends — or extends, really. Its energies are almost wholly inward-directed. We ride along with the sorrows and temporary joys of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who insists that everyone call her Lady Bird. Why? The movie doesn’t tell us. Nor does there seem to be a compelling reason to set the story in 2002 and 2003. A lot of Lady Bird — its emotional meanings, specific references — seems locked away from the viewer, known and felt only by Gerwig.

It probably won’t do to speak of male or female styles of movie directing, especially in an art form that has given us Bigelow, Wertmüller, Lexi Alexander. But a movie like, say, Wonder Woman feels different from a male-directed superhero film in a million distinct, at times large and overarching, or sometimes almost imperceptible ways. They are elements that add up and assure you that you are getting a woman’s vision, which is all the more to be valued in an industry where the default — the experience that’s shared on film, and the audience with whom the experience is shared — is (white hetero) male. Lady Bird is unmistakably and unapologetically (white hetero) female. It’s a gentle thing, but far less fragile than it looks; there’s a hidden sadness in it, and strength from the sadness.

Lady Bird is a teenage student at a Sacramento Catholic school. She dabbles in this and that (running for school office, acting in plays), trying to find a self. In that way she’s a bit like Rushmore’s Max Fischer, though she has her own quirks. She’s dying to get out of Sacramento, to go to college in New York. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf), who works double shifts as a nurse to keep the family afloat, wants Lady Bird to be realistic about what school she can get into — and can afford. She has a boyfriend who turns out to be gay, then pairs off with a pompous ass in a band. She ices her best friend for a while in favor of a popular kid, then thinks better of it. Her entire life seems to be a repeating pattern of moving in one direction, backtracking, moving another direction, and so forth. The filmmaking, honoring this, feels diffuse, indecisive.

Actually, it’s right on target, a rare American inner-consciousness portrait that somehow doesn’t feel hermetic. The narrative may not literally reflect Gerwig’s life, but it has her warm and sympathetic touch; her personality can be felt. Lady Bird is far from perfect and often makes bad decisions, but they are her decisions. We never doubt that. In a repressive environment, she does what she can to carve her own space, to meet her own needs (a virgin, she swaps masturbation techniques with her bestie). She isn’t especially looking for a boy until she finds one — in both cases fixating on them while they’re singing (falling in love with their voices, I guess an inverse of The Little Mermaid).

We understand why she feels and acts as she does, and yet our empathy extends to people she has conflict with, such as her mother. Gerwig loves actors and small, telling moments, and actively avoids melodramatic plot turns you might expect. She bears down into mundane scenes and somehow makes them feel fresh by the sensibility that animates them. Gerwig’s obvious fondness for her characters (nobody in the film is all bad — or all good) is contagious. She loves and respects her creations enough not to put them in stupid, well-worn situations; she respects us enough not to foist such tired drama on us. We don’t see so much of that sort of consideration at the movies that we can afford to dismiss it.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

December 3, 2017

threebillboardsAn unburied corpse, in ancient Greek tragedy, gave pause to the very gods themselves. It was the ultimate indignity, an affront to life as well as death, a refusal of humanity. This has something to do with Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a sort of Greek tragedy in modern garb. Here, the body, which we never see except fleetingly in police photos, is that of the teenage daughter of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who works in the town gift shop. Mildred’s daughter was interrupted rather violently almost a year ago; in response, Mildred has rented three billboards and uses them to frame an accusation. The billboards — posted within about a football field’s length of each other, like three-quarters of a grim parody of a Burma-Shave sequential ad — read as follows: “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

That would be Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who has done everything he can to find the rapist and murderer of young Angela Hayes. Sometimes, he says at one point, you don’t catch a break. That’s not nearly good enough for Mildred, who may as well be aiming her query at God. “The heaven shall reveal his iniquity,” the book of Job tells us, “and the earth shall rise up against him” — in the form of billboards, presumably. Three Billboards proceeds in the grand classical tradition of tragedy, though it’s not without humor, this being a movie by the writer/director of the madly amusing crime films In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). This is something of a crime film, too, though the major crimes take place before and (possibly) after the narrative’s reach.

Whodunit? Maybe God — unless, of course, “there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other,” muses Mildred. She flirts with nihilism, but it doesn’t flirt back, and soon she’s swinging into action again, driven forward by rage and grief, hardly even noticing her living son. Like many Greek-tragedy heroines, Mildred is both a great woman and a monster. Her quarrel with Chief Willoughby is really a quarrel with death and with life, and McDormand creates a façade of stoic strength she allows to develop tiny cracks so we can see the ungovernable pain beneath.

Three Billboards deals in the, let’s say, archetypal — the drunk, racist mama’s boy who ultimately shapes up to be a fine detective and avenger (Sam Rockwell, mesmerizingly askew as always); the cheesy, near-pedophiliac ex-husband (John Hawkes). Peter Dinklage shows up — McDonagh must love dwarves and love it when clueless idiots call them midgets, because he told that joke in In Bruges and tells it again here, only with Peter Dinklage. By now such things in McDonagh’s work impress us as signatures, pet themes, preoccupations we can only guess at. McDonagh had been building a rep as the next bad boy of crime cinema (cf. Tarantino, Danny Boyle, etc.), as conversant with gore as with wit. But this film feels like a step forward, or at least a step sideways.

When a character here opts for suicide, McDonagh attends to it with empathy, but also doesn’t let us forget the deceased leaves behind a grieving spouse and two children. A good chunk of Three Billboards is about redemption and how people are stubbornly complex, able to be many things at once. A man can be good and noble and still be prideful in ways that deprive children of a father. A man can be a racist twerp and still (rather literally) come through a baptism of fire and find himself more reflective and intuitive. A woman can be full of unappeasable fury and still, in telling little moments, pop back into community and humanity when faced with another’s agony. How we’re supposed to feel about the ambiguous ending depends, I think, on what mood we’re in — whether we want to see it as proof of evil helplessly regenerating itself or proof that even the most monomaniacal and violent can grow and change. Either mood is, accidentally I’m sure, very much of this harrowed and degraded moment.

Lucky

November 24, 2017

luckyAnyone who has ever loved Harry Dean Stanton in one of his two hundred film and TV credits over the last sixty-three years will have to make some time for Stanton’s leading-man swan song Lucky, even though it’s a bit of a chunk of dry toast, a little too knowingly thrown as a low-key vaya con dios party for him. Stanton plays the title character, who passes his ritualistic days drifting from place to place in a small town. A diner in the morning for coffee and the crossword puzzle. Home to the TV set and Lucky’s “shows” in the afternoon. Out to a bar in the evening. Occasionally he ruminates about life and our purpose in it, and how to face death though he’s pretty sure there’s no God, just darkness. That’s about it.

Lucky is about both Lucky and Harry Dean Stanton, of course. Screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja shaped their work specifically around Stanton, his range (not the widest, but often surprising and inventive within it), and his own life. Inevitably, Stanton doesn’t really seem to be acting; we feel that he’s simply being himself in character as Lucky. Sometimes, as when the film contrives to reunite Stanton with his Alien captain Tom Skerritt, it shows its hand as a construct designed for Stanton to thrive in. On the other hand, seeing Stanton alongside Skerritt again is admittedly a kick, and they do beautiful work together, reminiscing about World War II (more details pulled from Stanton’s life).

What makes Lucky worth indulging is Stanton, naturally, but also the way he refuses to insult this feature-length gesture of affection towards him by giving any less than he’s ever given. He could have rested on his laurels here, coasted, stoically accepted his due — but he doesn’t. He brings levels of melancholy and odd anger to each scene; he keeps us riveted physically, letting his wrinkles and eyebags tell eloquent silent stories. We can’t take our eyes off him, but that’s no doing of point-and-shoot actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch. Nor can we say the film protects him by putting him up against boring actors, when Stanton butts heads with the likes of Beth Grant, Ed Begley Jr., and the indefatigable David Lynch. Stanton makes his sweetest music with David Lynch, as those who’ve seen Stanton in Lynch’s own films (Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, etc.) already know.

In and of itself, the movie is arid, visually null. The camera isn’t being used to express much of anything, and so we begin to wonder why, other than to raise a toast to Harry Dean Stanton, this is a movie. Though well-acted, the supporting characters in Lucky’s life feel like supporting characters; with most of them, we don’t feel that they have lives outside the scene and the frame. The exception is Bertila Damas’ store owner, who invites Lucky to her son’s tenth birthday fiesta, leading to a rare and lovely moment in which Lucky, in Stanton’s own slightly querulous but soulful singing voice, croons “Volver, Volver.” It’s a great moment — but we’re aware of it as a great moment, engineered as a great moment for the star.

I don’t begrudge Stanton the apotheosis he receives here. Few artists get swan songs this apropos, this on-the-money. (Who doesn’t despair when reminded that the accidental swan song of Gene Hackman, who has retired from acting, will be Welcome to Mooseport?) Stanton at least goes out with the same level of integrity he’d always had. Even when he showed up fleetingly in a trick of slick whoring like The Avengers, we were absurdly happy to see him, an oasis of rumpled humanity in a desert of plastic. (It spoke well of the director, Joss Whedon, that he apparently bent over backwards to find some way to get Harry Dean Stanton in there.) He elevated any and all material; Repo Man is inconceivable without him. Lucky doesn’t exist without him. Stanton leaves the sort of void that so troubles Lucky. There will not be more of him. The movie itself is aptly named — it’s lucky to have Stanton. He does more for Lucky than it does for him.