Sunday, January 28, 2018

THE MOST DEMANDING MAN OF ALL: a review of "Phantom Thread"

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Every so often I arrive at films that I admire and appreciate--to even large degrees-more than I am actually fond of them. For Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson, he is increasingly making those types of films.

I have long announced and celebrated my love for the cinematic oeuvre of Paul Thoams Anderson and I whole heartedly agree with other film goers, critics and writers w ho feel that he is indeed one of the finest American cinematic directors working today as his vision remains powerfully idiosyncratic, making the release of each new film an event.

Now that being said, it has been quite some time since I have loved a Paul Thomas Anderson film, most specifically the outstanding, ahead of the curve "There Will Be Blood" (2007)  to be exact. This is not intended to be read as a criticism of the quality of his output. As far as quality is concerned, there are few filmmakers working in Anderson's stratosphere as his movie universes are distinctly his own. What I am saying is just an observation that I have felt for myself as his films have evolved or altered from the more visceral--like the Robert Altman/Martin Scorsese influenced masterpieces of both "Boogie Nights" (1997) and "Magnolia" (1999)--to the more clinical, cerebral, and emotionally detached a la Stanley Kubrick styled "The Master" (2012) and "Inherent Vice" (2014).

With his latest film,"Phantom Thread," Anderson continues within this vein, creating a world that purposefully feels as if it takes place within some overly meticulously designed cinematic snowglobe where every little thing fits within its correct placement. Its measured pacing is deliberate. Its ornate fashions equally so. In fact, the film feels to be more constrained and even claustrophobic than any of his past films and again, the coldness of the proceedings kept me at arms length. Trust me, this is not a warm film in the least. But even so, there is quite a nasty subversive streak threatening to blow the film apart that gave the film some electric bursts of energy all the while informing me that Paul Thomas Anderson has again made a film designed to challenge as well as re-visit, to truly digest everything that he clearly placed into it, especially the layers contained within what has been announced as Daniel Day-Lewis' final film performance.

Set in the couture world of 1950's London, "Phantom Thread" stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the improbably named Reynolds Woodcock, a well renowned fashion designer and dress maker for members of high society whose reputation for his meticulous attention and demands in his work and life are formidable to say the least. Still haunted by the death of his Mother, and having his equally formidable sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) as the force behind the day-to-day managerial responsibilities, Reynolds is able to fully devote himself to his craft (which includes inserting secret messages into his clothing) while enveloped in the world he has built to his fastidious specifications...personal relationships and definitely, romantic ones be damned, if need be. 

Upon visiting a restaurant in the countryside, Reynolds meets and is immediately attracted to a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). He asks her out for a date to which she accepts and soon, the two become a couple as Alma is enthralled with her entry into Reynolds' high fashion world, first as an assistant and soon, as his latest creative muse.

Yet, all is not golden in Reynolds Woodcock's world as his relationship with Alma begins to show signs of friction which then grows more tumultuous, from personality quirks to bickering to feeling that the status of his specialized universe is being threatened of becoming undone due to her presence as well as her assertion of power within their relationship dynamic.

Where women were once able to be tossed aside, Alma more than proves herself to be the one in which Reynolds may have met his match...a match in which he can either adapt or meet his downfall.

As with all of his past films, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" is a lustrous production, armed with a resplendent set and sound design plus being magnificently edited by Dylan Tichnor,  beautifully scored by Composer Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead (his fourth collaboration with Anderson) and photographed by Anderson himself as Cinematographer (uncredited). Most of all, we again have an Anderson feature that is exceedingly well acted, truly not a surprise when you have Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead but even so, the skill on display is masterful.

In keeping with themes presented within both "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" is another exploration into the arenas of power, control and a battle of extreme wills between two unrepentant forces. As Reynolds Woodcock,  Daniel Day-Lewis give a tour de force performance by actually not being overly showy. His is a performance of restraint to the point of repression and containment to the point of being fully restricted, both qualities which seem to fly in the face of a character who has obtained artistic freedom.

With his immaculate presentation from his dress to his windswept backwards mane of grey hair to the upkeep of his home and all manner of routines and rules-- most especially, his morning breakfast ritual of sketching before eating and without any sense of emotional or auditory disruptions, the dichotomy of Reynolds Woodcock rests within a character who has spent so much of his life attaining control that the act of maintaining control may prove itself to being more stressful, difficult and precarious. Yes, he is a mercurial figure but we can also infer his unreasonable qualities, most notably his disregard for anyone else's feelings or wishes if they do not ultimately serve his own pursuits.

"Phantom Thread" is clearly a portrait of the self-imposed tortured artist, and one could wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson is utilizing this portrait for a bout of self-examination, self-preservation or even as a self-inflicted warning as to what not to become regarding his own artistic pursuits and how they balance with his personal life.  That all being said, Daniel Day-Lewis once again burrows so deeply into the role that there never seems to be a trace of the real person, or any of his past roles,  whatsoever. Regard his body language to the most minuscule movements, and I feel that what we are witnessing is a man desperately clinging to what he has achieved but so meticulous in his behavior so as to not let anything other than complete control visible to anyone--including his sister Cyril, who obviously possesses her own severe control issues.

Once Alma arrives into the House of Woodcock, and especially once she begins to demonstrate her ambition and her assertiveness, the effects of her audaciousness are seismic, making "Phantom Thread" a gradually vicious comedy of manners (which is indeed often laugh out loud funny) as well as an especially perceptive view into male/female power dynamics.

Vicky Krieps more than holds her own with Day-Lewis as their escalating conflicts, which begins as choice sharp words and passive-aggressive disruptions into areas that grow stranger, darker, more malicious as it feels that Alma has progressed beyond simply not bending to Reynolds' will but to dismantling it altogether. Just watch (or rather listen) to how she butters her toast or pours water into a glass, for instance and how those acts nearly cause Reynolds to shatter in fury as he realizes just how little control he actually possesses. Regard how Alma quickly escalates conversations into war of words with her quiet backtalk and how easily it upends Reynolds, bringing him into profanity laden outbursts. And it does not stop here...

To say anything more regarding the relationship between Reynolds and Alma would spoil the experience but with the elements of resilience, obsession, strength, cunning and even malice, the character of Alma may not be that far removed from figures we have seen in Danny DeVito's "The War Of The Roses" (1989), David Fincher's "Gone Girl" (2014) and both versions of "The Beguiled" (1971/2017), directed by Don Siegel and Sofia Coppola, respectively. 

The subversion within "Phantom Thread" feels to rest precisely in the reasons that I felt at a bit of a distance with this film overall, and how it also rocked me back and forth in a push/pull fashion. For all of the dollhouse aesthetics, Paul Thomas Anderson, through Reynolds and Alma's relationship and battles, keep threatening to shatter the film apart as if he is standing just this close to the set of "Masterpiece Theater" with a lit match ready to burn the entire palace down.

Watching Reynolds, Cyril and Alma, we have the entire upper crust English veneer, which is a cover for the seething rage underneath, and to watch that rage lash out as sharply and as instantaneously as a cobra's bite makes for not only some surprisingly big laughs but only increases the tension, which Anderson somehow keeps cerebral to the point where it just may fly into the visceral...but never really does. 

Again, I could not help but to wonder if "Phantom Thread" was a way for Anderson to comment upon his own filmography and the changes and growth he has made as an artist regarding the tonality of his earlier films when compared with his most recent work. Yet another layer to an already fascinating film that nevertheless I had some difficulty becoming fully engrossed with.

But isn't that the nature of some of our finest artists? They create works that truly require us to really live with them for some time before we can fully come to terms with our assessment of them. Paul Thomas Anderson, with each new film feels to be that very kind of filmmaker where accolades and/or pejoratives (however rare) may arrive too easily or too quickly, which is ultimately a disservice due to the effort he has placed into them to be explored time and again over a period of time, for us to sit with them, discuss them, and even debate and argue about them. 

Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" is one of those films where the critical star ratings never feel more arbitrary but the high quality on display and within the thematics is unquestionable. And as for Daniel Day-Lewis, to willingly end a film career with a project this complex, difficult, and often inimitable is a victory lap indeed. It is peerless work from an actor still at the top of his game in a film by a director who is firmly unapologetic.

How the movies really need figures like these and how less compelling the movies will be once they exit. For you, Daniel Day-Lewis, BRAVO!! For us, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" is as elegant as it is confined, almost daring us to unravel its secrets.

Friday, January 26, 2018

IS IT BETTER TO SPEAK OR DIE: a review of "Call Me By Your Name"

Based upon the novel Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman 
Screenplay Written by James Ivory
Directed by Luco Guadagnino
**** (four stars)

In the summer of 1987,  I was 18 years old.

It always amazes me when I have conversations with people of my age or older and they happen to remark that they possess no memories of their teenage years. This occurrence has happened so often that now, I am maybe wondering if I need to concede to the possibility that I may be an anomaly as for me, my adolescence is still so present. It never takes much ability for me to recall an episode, an event, a span of time and all of the emotions that pertain. I don't perceive myself to be living in the past as it is indeed a time I would never wish to return to. It is simply the fact that being closely in tune with all aspects of my life, especially the past, they will continue to serve their collective purpose of informing the present and possibly the future.

In the case of the summer of 1987, the 30 year time difference means nothing as I can instantly place myself back in the Chicago home I grew up in and the stretch of time between graduating from high school and leaving home to attend college in Madison, WI.

It was a time that felt to be interminable, filled with restlessness, loneliness, boredom, a certain anxiety and readiness to be out of my parents' house and (somewhat) on my own. It was a summer where I was essentially all on my own as the neighborhood friends I grew up with had all drifted apart and since I did not live near my school friends, and also aside from talking on the phone, I pretty much never saw them after graduation.

It was the summer where I began writing in earnest, dreaming away of being a filmmaker, sitting at the typewriter in my makeshift room in the basement, where I could screen my beloved John Hughes films whenever I wished and I obsessively listened to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" (released October 12, 1979) and slowly found myself sinking deeper and deeper into Todd Rundgren's "Something/Anything?" (released February 1972), both albums I initially didn't care for but explored them every single day and night.

It was the summer where I tried to re-create my summer of 1986 obsession of riding my bike around and around the neighborhood but somehow, those elements never quite congealed in the same way again. Mostly, I pined away for unrequited crushes and romantic wounds, worrying myself to aching fits that not one person would ever love me. It was a summer of growing more introspective, definitely moodier, internally quieter, with ever present headphones at the ready for pure enjoyment or for an escape from whatever may have been troubling me at the time. I wanted to leave home but worried that I was unprepared then felt irritated with waiting even one day longer to leave and then feeling even more irritated that my parents had arranged for me to depart a week sooner than I had originally thought.

I can remember the summer breezes through the upstairs window. I can remember the color of the telephone I constantly used to talk to my friends (yellow).  I can remember hoping that I could make some sense of myself for myself. I can remember it all.

The rush of memories I felt watching Director Luco Guadagnino's stunning, exquisite coming-of-age romantic drama "Call Me By Your Name" was nearly instantaneous as the internal conflicts contained within who you were, who you are and who you might become fully transcended the film's  locale and primary love story, making for a film experience that was boundless in its sense of revelation. Guadagnino's film is as lush and languid as a warm, humid, long, lazy summer's day where possibilities seem endless and time itself feels to slow to a crawl if not stop altogether. And still, there is a powerful urgency to the film, one that contains clashing emotions and existential ideas and ideals about one's sexual awakening and therefore, one's emotional stability.

With all due respect to Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird," that coming-of-age film does not even come close to approaching the heights and exceedingly aching emotional depths that are achieved in Luco  Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name." This is a film so remarkably in tune to its sense of time and place that you can practically smell the season of the summer 1983 and all of the emotional and carnal waves displayed throughout. This is a film that delves clear past the bone and digs directly into the soul.

With its nearly dreamworld descriptive setting of  "somewhere in Northern Italy," Luco Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name" takes place in the summer of 1983 as we meet 17 year old Jewish-American Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a bookworm and musical prodigy restlessly spending the season in the  Italian countryside with his Mother (Amira Casar) and his Father (the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor.

As the film opens, the household is moments away from taking in a summer live-in guest, graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is present to assist with the professor's academic paperwork yet whom the resentful Elio refers to as a "usurper." Where Elio is lanky and introspective, Oliver is gorgeously athletic, gregarious, confident and boisterous. While Elio quietly spends his days reading, transcribing music, swimming, riding his bike or hanging out with his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel), he grows increasing irritated with Oliver's seemingly natural ability to traverse his new surroundings with ease, as well as his gift for quickly making friends, including the affections of Chiara (Victorie Du Bois).

It is as if Elio exists upon life's fringes while Oliver sits directly at the center yet on a day during which the volleyball playing Oliver touches the observant Elio upon his back, a spark is ignited leading to a lengthy, tentative courtship the two, ultimately building into a full romantic affair.

Luco Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name" is exemplary. Instantly transportive and unquestionably seductive, the film effortlessly weaves a spell that will undoubtedly inspire travel (both physical and spiritual) as well as potentially unearth levels of deeply internalized desire(s) that may prove to be as revealing and as painful as they are for the characters within the film.

While the main romance within the film is indeed a homosexual one, I do not think that Guadagnino has necessarily created a "coming out coming-of-age" film, so to speak. But even so, he is exploring large yet meticulously intimate themes of sexuality from repression, confusion, exuberance, concealment, acceptance, self-denial and anxiety, which then digs further into the emotional, the romantic, and the existential. What is the truth of myself and what does it mean to deny myself the ability to be my truest self? Would it be better to voice my deepest desires to bring them to life or should I conform, and just let it wither away into the ether?

In pursuit of those particular questions and answers, Guadagnino allows "Call Me By Your Name" to meander for a large amount of its running time...just like an endless summer day. This is a film that is not in a hurry to arrive at any pre-conceived destination and this approach allowed the characters, as well as all of us in the audience, to swim within the moments and therefore, the memories...including the very memories just created moments ago. In fact, that is what the film overall feels like: a collection of moments that by film's end, all snap together like the most complex jigsaw puzzle. And when it comes to sex, desire, romance and self-discovery it is through reaching the conclusion, where one can reflect and only then easily see how those specific moments were the distinctive moments that led to the romance in the first breadcrumbs laid down to be re-discovered to find a newfound sense of home.

I guess there is a sense of nostalgia as the film is set in 1983 but for a period piece, "Call Me By Your Name" is rapturously timeless and aside from Elio's Talking Heads T-shirt and a few other period piece nuggets, Luco Guadagnino  is not at all interested in creating an ode to pop culture. In fact, I am wondering if Guadagnino is making a commentary about the 21st century as the film is so refreshingly analog in its presentation.

In the Northern Italian countryside world of "Call Me By Your Name," there are no computers, therefore, no smartphones or social media. Television is rarely viewed. And frankly, there are not even that many cars! Guadagnino gives us a world of walking, biking, swimming in clear, succulent water, books, fruit and juice straight from the orchards, the air flowing through the leaves, pianos and timeless classical music, tape recorders, sheet music and pens, radios with antennas and that unmistakable sound of airwave static...I think you can capture the picture. If you lived through that era as I have, the film nearly makes me wish to return to an era that was so technologically uncomplicated, invasive, pervasive and prevalent. If you haven't lived through that era, then Guadagnino invites you to take a luxurious gaze into a period without our current advances and/or distractions. For all of us, we can easily inhale the scent of freshness and time that emanates from the screen in its warm summer breezes.

"Call Me By Your Name" is a film of connections formed through symbols and definitely language, as the characters float easily from English to Italian to French and both the Professor and Oliver are language historians. That said, Guadagnino has created a work that is actually not propelled through its dialogue necessarily, as connections are formulated via means that are at times suggestive physically or even almost ephemeral.

For instance, Elio's observance of Oliver's Star Of David necklace provides a sense of connective tissue between himself and the so -called usurper through their Jewish heritage. Even further, a trip to an archaeological dig site provides (and even begins to create) connective tissue between Oliver, Elio and the Professor. Mostly, observe the body language on display in the film. We can see how body language represents the differences between American and Italian culture. Watch how Oliver eats and drinks ravenously where his companions are deliberately slower, experiencing every single bite and drink. Additionally, dancing to The Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way" in a nightclub proves itself to be a seductive act and a jovial touch from Oliver to Elio's back during a volleyball game is indeed the spark that begins to produce the flame. Where Marzia's deeper understanding of Elio and Oliver arrives through what has been unspoken, the depths of Elio and Oliver's relationship arrives through acts both spoken (hence the film's title) and the unspoken.

And really, just watch Elio's body language throughout the film, as his adolescent herky-jerky, sudden, sharp  movements work in full contrast not only to Oliver's fully adult confidence but to the luscious yet torpid pace of the summer season itself--it is as if he is trying to physically will something...anything (ha ha) into existence. Yet by the film's shattering final image, Elio is essentially paralyzed, and in a remarkable piece of acting, Timothee Chalamet wordlessly allows us to achingly explore a world of emotions solely through his face in a lengthy unbroken shot.

As I write to you, the Oscar nominations for this year's 90th annual Academy Awards have been announced and I am beyond thrilled that "Call Me By Your Name" has been acknowledged within four categories of Best Actor for Timothee Chalamet, Best Adapted Screenplay for James Ivory, Best Director for Luco Gadagnino and Best Original Song for one of Sufjan Stevens' three quietly shattering pieces featured in the film. They are all exceedingly well deserved. What stuns me is the omission of Armie Hammer, whose undeniably magnetic performance is his best to date and also, unquestionably crucial to the success of the film as a whole, especially as his role works as a duet with Chalamet's.

Armed with a charisma that I have not seen since perhaps the first time I saw Jude Law, which was in Director Anthony Minghella's Italian set and homosexual themed psychological thriller "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999), the sheer watch-ability and complexities contained within his performance of Oliver are formidable. He is the brash American, the Adonis figure and even more  things inscrutable and captivating. Certainly, and especially within the context of our #MeToo and #Timesup movement, we could examine, or even argue, about the intents and purposes of the perhaps 25 year old Oliver towards the 17 year old Elio. For me, as I watched the film, I felt a certain purity to the relationship as well as the simultaneous lifts of passion, euphoria, confusion of messages sent, received and misconstrued and definitely, the bittersweetness contained in the fact that the summer of 1983, like all summers, cannot last forever. There will be a conclusion but how difficult will it be and for what reasons, are all unknown until they occur. Armie Hammer is magnificent and there is just not one conceivable reason I can think of that he was not nominated.

To that end, the omission of nominating veteran character actor Michael Sthulbarg as Elio's Father in the Best Supporting Actor category is unfathomable. In many ways, the entire film snaps together powerfully near the very end of the film as he delivers a heartbreaking, gorgeous, absolutely beautifully delivered emotional bombshell of a monologue to Elio, brings ALL of the emotional, psychological and romantic terrain of "Call Me By Your Name" into sharp clarity.

As a cinematic rarity, it is a scene between a Father and son presented without comedy, irony, false or guarded sensitivity. It is a monologue of tenderness and anguish presented with a painful quietness in its love, desperation and confession, the likes of which I have not seen since Brian Cox's shattering Father/son monologue delivered at the conclusion of Spike Lee's "25th Hour" (2002). A gain, we regard what is spoken and unspoken and through Stuhlbarg's performance, we gain greater insight into the inner worlds of Elio, Oliver and himself, making an already revelatory film become even more revealing, as it illustrates just how very little we, as teenagers, ever really know about our parents, and their dreams, desires and sacrifices. Michael Stuhlbarg truly delivered one of the very best performances I saw in 2017 in just mere minutes and it makes me sad that he was not recognized for Oscar.

Regardless of award nominations, Luco Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name" is essential, sublime viewing. Now that word has already been announced that Guadagnino wishes to tackle the lives of Elio and Oliver over the course of potentially five films in total, much like Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" (1995), "Before Sunset" (2004), and "Before Midnight" (2013), I am  more than ready to witness how the twosome grow and change over time, whether together or apart or some state in between as this cinematic world more than lends itself to the exploration and immersion. But first, "Call Me By Your Name" is a lyrical, poetic ode to summers and ages long gone yet so ever present and for those of you who claim to not remember those times in your own lives, I firmly believe that a re-awakening will occur as you regard this extraordinary film. 

Luco Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name" is one of 2017's highest achievements.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Now this was a strong list!!

Early in the morning of January 23rd, as I sat in the teacher's lounge before heading to another day in the world of preschool education for three-year olds, I viewed the announcements of the Oscar nominations for the 90th Academy Awards, which will be telecast on Sunday, March 4th, on the edge of my seat per usual. Yet, this year, I often found myself wanting to jump for joy straight out of my seat as I was thrilled with the nature of the nominations which proved themselves to being more diversified and representative of the full quality of the cinematic year of 2017. Now certainly, there were some snubs that make me want to smack my head (Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman," I feel your pain) but mostly, I was exceedingly pleased.

First of all, the nominations of Jordan Peele's "Get Out" in the categories for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor for Daniel Kaluuya and the grand prize of Best Picture was astounding as this ingenious film correctly touched a powerful nerve within our current and especially racially turbulent society. In ma ny ways, when I first saw the film, regardless of its critical and box office acclaim, I wondered if it would essentially just remain within a certain niche. Wondrously, it transcended its horror film genre creatively and culturally, therefore making a film that is more than worthy of awards season attention. And the fact that Peele is now the 5th African-American director to ever receive a nomination for Best Director, I must celebrate the history making achievement while also lamenting that in 90 years, only FIVE Black filmmakers have been deemed worthy by Oscar for attention?!

To that end, I have to commend and celebrate Greta Gerwig for the nominations bestowed upon her film "Lady Bird," including Best Picture. While I am considerably softer on that film than other critics and viewers, I am compelled to simultaneously congratulate her status as being the 5th female to ever be nominated for Best Director, while also lamenting that it has taken 90 years in this area as well.

Furthermore, congratulations should be delivered to Rachel Morrison for her nomination in the Best Cinematography category for Director Dee Rees' "Mudbone" (a film that surprisingly received a number of nominations but also one which I have not seen as I do not have Netflix and the film did not play theatrically in my area).  It turns out that Morrison is the first woman to be nominated in this area. Shameful as she is the very first in..can I say it again...90 YEARS...but even so, you have to begin somewhere and it is great that she is the one to break this particular glass ceiling. 

And for that matter, can someone please tell me why Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" was completely snubbed? For a film that was as big of a box office and critical success as this film, especially one that has represented the comic book film genre at its absolute best while also being one of the most refreshing and audacious in such an over-crowded field. Jenkins and Wonder Woman herself Gal Gadot, more than deserved the fullness of industry attention as they made a film that was as inspiring and illuminating as it was exciting and just plain fun. To ignore it, as far as I am concerned, is an awards season cinematic crime.

Onto better things...

Seeing Co-Writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani's "The Big Sick" nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category nearly made me have tears of joy as I loved it so very much. To see the slew of technical nomination flow to the likes of Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver," Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" and certainly Rian Johnson's "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" were as thrilling as they were flat out correct!! I loved seeing Denzel Washington's peerless work in Dan Gilroy's well-intentioned but lackluster "Roman J Isreal, Esq." receive more than worthy recognition. And yes, seeing Richard Jenkins' heartbreaking work in Guillermo del Toro's "The  Shape Of Water" receive recognition made my heart soar.

As for the nine Best Picture nominees, I have so far seen six of the films and without producing any spoilers, most of them appear upon my Best Of 2017 list, which I have not yet written and posted as there are still a couple more movies I wish to see. That said, I just feel that Oscar got it correct as these indeed are the films that have received the most celebratory attention throughout the year, and most of them do indeed represent their respective styles, genres and storytelling at their finest. Here, I really I have no complaints.

Where I do have complaints, however, is again, the eternally troublesome Best Director category, which always leaves deserving filmmakers out in the cold and in this case, no less than four directors. I just feel that if the film is nominated for Best Picture, that film's Director should automatically be nominated. Because really...none of these films directed themselves!

And even though I haven't posted the finished review as of yet, I just cannot believe that Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg from Luco Guadagnino's exquisite "Call Me By Your Name" were not nominated. I'll just leave that right there but just know that I. AM. STEAMED.

OK...that's really it for now and I'll begin writing and posting my Savage Scorecard series plus my Oscar predictions throughout February 2018.

Stay tuned!

Monday, January 15, 2018

FREE TO PUBLISH!!: a review of "The Post"

Screenplay Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
Directed by Steven Spielberg
**** (four stars)

If there is any filmmaker who is able to somehow, someway make the sound of clicking typewriters pulsate with white knuckle intensity and the images of crucial decision making can make a theater erupt in applause, that filmmaker would be none other than Steven Spielberg, the man who has created movie magic for nearly 50 years. With his latest effort, the historical docudrama "The Post," Spielberg proves again that he is not a filmmaker content to rest upon his creative laurels or his immense legacy. He is one who is endlessly inventive, curious, passionate and therefore, ferociously inspired, making his continued output more than worthy and deserving of our attention.

Now that being said, Spielberg's films as of late have been less than impressive to me. Of course, I do not believe that he is even capable of making a "bad" movie due to the enormity of his creativity and sills but even so, I was a tad underwhelmed by the likes of his more cerebral efforts "Lincoln" (2012) and "Bridge Of Spies" (2015) and his rather toothless adaptation of  Roald Dahl's "The BFG" (2016), I will openly admit may have had more to do with the movie he made not at all matching up with the exceedingly more frightening, tougher, exciting movie I had made up in my head when I read that particular book. That being said, something felt a little amiss with my reactions to the films made by a person who is possibly the most influential filmmaker of my life as he was instrumental in introducing me to the wondrous magic of the motion pictures. His recent films have just kept me a bit at arms length despite their unquestionable artistry.

With "The Post," Steven Spielberg has returned with a furiously impassioned roar. Lean, taut, briskly paced while perfectly merging the cerebral and the propulsive, Spielberg has helmed his best film in years, re-confirming his status as one of our living cinematic legends. In a past interview, Steven Spielberg once remarked that if one were to gaze over his complete filmography, one could see that most of the films he has made have either taken place in the past or the future,  where all the while he is commenting upon the present. "The Post" is a history lesson to be certain. But a history lesson that is as up to the minute in 2018 that it could nearly serve as a documentary!

Set in 1971, "The Post" stars Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, Editor-In-Chief of The Washington Post and Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, a newspaper heiress who took over the newspaper after the suicide of her husband and is currently struggling with the balance of her life as a socialite as well as her business responsibilities as she is contemplating making The Washington Post pubic, therefore hopefully shedding the journal's "family paper" image for a wider national reach and profitability. Yet, in her simultaneous affectionate/contentious relationship with Bradlee, the twosome partially spar over the business deal, which would reward in potential greater finances that could assist or hinder the actual journalism at work, .

The Washington Post, already in then President Nixon's cross hairs to the point that they have been refused access to covering his daughter wedding, has been playing catch-up to the likes of The New York Times but their moment to grab the brass ring is evident.

The New York Times' new expose of what would be called "The Pentagon Papers," classified documents spanning three decades and four U.S. Presidents. These documents showcased how every Presidential administration since Truman was involved with the behind-the-scenes political mechanizations of what would become the Vietnam War, and how the United States government knowingly and continuously sent soldiers to fight and die while lying to the American people about our nation's prospects at winning a war that the government, again, knew was unwinnable.

The publication of some of these documents land the New York Times with a court injunction against further publication, an injunction Bradlee wishes to take full advantage of for his paper as he attempts to locate and seize the Pentagon Papers for publication in The Washington Post, risking not only an injunction and possible imprisonment for himself, his writers and Katherine Graham but also the attack of the full fury of the vengeful Nixon administration. 

Steven Spielberg's "The Post" rockets through it race-against-time structure with a MASTER CLASS level of crisp direction, first class storytelling and the exceedingly gifted performances from the entire cast (MVP awards should undoubtedly go to both Bob Odenkirk and Tracy Letts for their equally outstanding work).

Conceptually (as well as taking a trip through my movie addled brain), one could conceivably think of this film as serving as a bit of a prequel to both Alan J. Pakula's classic "All The President's Men" (1976) and Ron Howard's eloquent yet sadly underseen "Frost/Nixon" (2008) and even as a companion piece to both Oliver Stone's hallucinogenic juggernaut "JFK" (1993) and his Shakespearian styled portrait of "Nixon" (1995) plus Pablo Larrain's psychological chamber piece "Jackie" (2016) to even some key elements within Spike Lee's fever dream "She Hate Me" (2004).

Even with the comparisons, "The Post" stands firmly upon its own cinematic feet and to a towering degree, as Spielberg has again taken that historical mirror to present to ourselves signifying that what is past is dangerously prologue. Within a story that concerns itself with government corruption involving the entrenched deception of the America public, a fight for 1st Amendment rights and a maniacal President of the United States more than ready and willing to rip that very Amendment to shreds for his own self-preservation and ravenous hunger for power and control, current events in our 21st century America confirm that we are long past the prologue and have been projected into a through-the-looking-glass existence where newspapers are dying, the devaluation of all news media is continuously rising and the President exists within a post-truth reality. Yet, the fight rages on.

With "The Post," Steven Spielberg presents those (and more) continuous struggles and their necessity for maintaining journalistic integrity combined with an accountability for all of our elected officials while also delivering a powerful elegy for what once was regarding the power and urgency of the print media, when hearing that snap of the morning papers was commonplace and fully desired.

Additionally, Spielberg also delivers a dire warning concerning the still turbulent relationship between journalism and big business, as the 24 hour cable news cycle has fallen into opinion politics at best, and downright sinister and politically driven propaganda at worst, all the while filling our screens with talking heads that really don't say terribly much of value, yet continue speaking in the pursuit of ratings. Just think what our news cycle would be like if all of cable news simply ceased reporting upon President Trump's every flatulent Twitter outrage, ratings be damned. Then, the news would be in control rather than the President provoking the media to follow his lead. Wag the dog indeed...

Yet, "The Post takes us back to a time period when journalists were furiously inspired to  not allow public servants to dictate what could and could not be disseminated to the American public and with Tom Hanks leading the charge, how could we not feel as equally inspired and as driven as the characters surrounding him in the film? 

Hanks' performance, all filled with gruff, chain smoking tenacity, is as magnetic and as effortless as we would expect. Even so, it is one that does arrive with challenging layers so as not to make Ben Bradlee too much of a Kapra-esque hero. Yet, in terms of journalism and the news, Bradlee is perfectly represented as existing upon the right side of history and his gleefulness with the thrill of the chase is palpable--in fact, the moment when he and his colleagues upon up the box containing part of the Pentagon Papers, it is presented with as much holy reverence as the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981)...but without the face melting wrath of God.

I did, however, feel that Hanks and Spielberg did rightfully inject a level of hubris to his pursuit of the truth as the consequences of the Supreme Court's decision h eld potentially dire consequences for himself and his reporters. How much of Bradlee wanted to uncover the truth for the American public and how much of Bradlee wanted to just have the scoop, thus elevating his own personal cache?  In that aspect, Ben Bradlee is not entirety virtuous, and in fact, in another crucial area, he does represent being as part of the problem.

Now, if you have been regular visitors to this blogsite, you have consistently read my critical to even mocking tone directed towards Meryl Streep's ubiquity with Oscar nominations, regardless if the performance in question was truly worthy of recognition or not. Yet, with "The Post," if she is indeed nominated again, it is for a performance that showcases strength and subtlety instead of any show-boating "I AM ACTING!!" hamminess, it would be indeed more than deserved. For my money, what is depicted here is one of Streep's finest performances in some time, a deliberately paced, slow  burn of a performance that provides "The Post" with its additional powerful theme of the rise of women in power in a so-called "man's world."

I did not realize that the real world Katherine Graham was the very first female publisher of a national newspaper, therefore making "The Post" a demonstrably riveting origin story as we are witness to this particular woman, in late middle age, grieving over her husband's suicide and being forced to re-invent her life in ways she most likely never truly conceived for herself.

Meryl Streep delivers a performance of growing confidence, with her own abilities and sense of power. Throughout the film, we observe Katherine Graham from her consistent asking of advice and opinions from the men that surround her life--from accountants, lawyers, political figures, and colleagues including Bradlee himself--or more often, being sidelined by those very same men regarding crucial decision making, all the way to the moments when she indeed wrestles full control--to which the audience I saw the film with burst into applause. And through Streep's unquestionable and revered skills, we can see her evolution step-by-step-by-step.

Working alongside Spielberg (it is stunning to me that these two figures have not collaborated before now) there were two moments in particular that where their cinematic powers congealed so beautifully, nailing moments in time and place so succinctly and mostly, without words. The first moment is a short scene featuring Streep as Katherine walking through a group of women into a closed office office of all men, making her the sole female present. The second moment occurs near the end of the film as Katherine quietly descends down the steps of the Supreme Court to the eyes of the public, most notably a variety of female onlookers. In those brief moments, what I saw was nothing less than the status quo being transformed and therefore, transcended. Essentially, especially in the second moment I described, we were witness to the sight of representation leading to inspiration.

Through the entirety of "The Post," Meryl Streep gives us a portrait of a character on a journey of self-discovery, which ultimately takes her to unprecedented heights. And still, she and Spielberg smartly realized that it would not be enough that she discovers the fullness of her potential. What Katherine Graham discovers is the full content of her character in a world that never asked or even wanted her to define it. But it is indeed a world that would be a better one because of it. "The Post"  illustrates, and completely without any melodramatic tactics, how representation matters, how being in the room, so to speak, can pave ways for more to be in the room and to even own the room itself. 

The arrival of Steven Spielberg's "The Post" at this specific point in time could not have been more perfect, especially as we now live in an age when CNN feels the need to say that an apple is an apple and President Trump can denounce sheer reality, even reality as presented with his own recorded voice, image and words, with a petulant wave of "fake news." That being said, what Spielberg has presented so masterfully is not just a film about journalistic integrity, or the freedom of the press, the constitutional rights of the 1st amendment, especially when it is the duty of the news media to hold our leaders fully accountable for their actions. It is not even just a film about the empowerment and rise of women within a "man's world."

Steven Spielberg's "The Post" is a film about resistance.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

UNPUBLISHABLE: a review of "The Book Of Henry"

Screenplay Written by Gregg Hurwitz
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
* (one star)

Just as with the good movies and especially, the great movies, all bad movies are not the same

There are the films that are bad for no other reason than all of the pieces of the cinematic puzzle just did not merge together in the very best way, regardless of the talent involved. It is as if the stars were simply not aligned. Then, there are the bad movies, where it really depends upon the sense and sensibilities of each, individual viewer, for what is artful to me may be garbage for someone else. And then, there are the movies that just cannot be reasoned with, or rationalized with or can even be saved. The bad movies that just careen off the rails, sometimes spectacularly. Colin Trevorrow's "The Book Of Henry" is one of those bad movies.

Dear readers, there is a strong difference between the badness of a film like "The Mountain Between Us" and "The Book Of Henry," because where the former was one that took a decent concept and executed it poorly, the latter is one that was horrific at conception. Frankly, "The Book Of Henry" is a howler!! The type of bad film where I could not help but to wonder just how the money lenders and powers-that-be read this screenplay and decided to throw money at the project to allow it to hit the silver screen. I am honestly stunned that not one person either before, during or after the filming took a look at what was being made and simply said to Trevorrow, " really need to sit down for this..."

In fact, this film is so terrible that I am almost recommending that you view it anyway just so you can have the experience of witnessing precisely how a movie can go so wrong so immediately, as this one does indeed careen off of the tracks and for two hours, we just get to watch this whole enterprise fall to its destruction in utter disbelief.

"The Book Of Henry" stars Jaeden Lieberher as Henry Carpenter, a genius child unlike any you have seen before...or could stomach. Yes, he is a star student, with a fully accessible adult vocabulary, perspective and worldview that makes him a perfect candidate for copious time spent in a closed, dark hallway locker.

Anyhow, he is the protective big brother to his younger sibling Peter Carpenter (Jacob Tremblay) from the school bully (no problem there), and clearly the "adult" figure in his home life as the boys' single Mother, Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts), a waitress in a local dive restaurant operated by former SNL cast member Bobby Moynihan, as well as aspiring children's book author/illustrator, is essentially only capable of eating sweets and playing violent video games while Henry handles the entirety of the household's finances and bills.

OK... next door to the Carpenters live the Sicklemans, a duo which includes Henry's pretty yet sullen classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler from Lifetime television's "reality" TV car crash "Dance Moms") and her stone-faced stepfather and police commissioner, Glenn (Dean Norris), whom Henry is 100% certain is abusing Christina.

And then, there is the titular book, a journal in which Henry has jotted down all of his seemingly six-figure treehouse Rube Goldberg designs and contraptions, so elaborate they would make Kevin McAllister from "Home Alone" (1990) salivate profusely, plus his even more elaborate plans to save Christina and take down Glenn Sickleman once and for all. 

Now, to a certain degree, what I have just described to you may not sound to be so downright awful. And truth be told, if the film just remained with those plot points, perhaps there could have been a way to make a story like this work. But...this is shockingly not all there is to "The Book Of Henry."

In addition to all that I have described, for whatever insane reasons, Trevorrow has also injected a terminal illness, financial wizardry, a school talent show complete with a solo dance routine (why not?) from Ziegler, a visit to a local, shady gun shop, a suicide, gentle sibling rivalry, an assassination attempt, and even Sarah Silverman as Watts' best friend from the who has clearly stumbled in from a completely different movie. To say that "The Book Of Henry" slapped me silly with jaw dropping disbelief would be an understatement. This thing is straight from the loony bin KA-RAZY!!!

Look, it would be one thing if Henry was gifted with numbers and mathematics but did he have to be a financial genius with a beyond expert's grasp of...Lord, help me...stocks and bonds (!), as he makes all of his wheelings and dealings from the pay phone (!!) located across the street from the school? It would be one thing if Henry was presented as somewhat of a savant or someone who was just pre-naturally wise. But, Henry possesses a level of foresight within this film that is supernatural. I mean--even Dionne Warwick couldn't have known all of the things that Henry is astoundingly able to know the longer this film progresses. "The Book Of Henry" truly contains the "and then this happened" syndrome to the point where the movie as a whole defies all sense of logic, reason, rationality, believability and therefore, any sense of empathy that Trevorrow and his cast are indeed working overtime to try and convey.

Honestly, I do have to hand it to both Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay for trying their best to make heads or tails from this, as they are each gifted young actors as evidenced from Lieberher's work in Theodore Melfi's "St. Vincent" (2014), Jeff Nichols' "Midnight Special" (2016) and Andy Muschietti's "It" (2017) as well as Tremblay's especially powerful performances in both Lenny Abrahamson's "Room" (2015) and Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder" (2017). Miraculously, they both attempt to find a sliver of honest emotion and realism within a film that possesses none of such things. Yet, unfortunately, out of the young cast, only Maddie Ziegler suffers, as she is obviously acting by hairstyle--behind the ears when she is feeling OK, draped completely over her face if she is depressed. Not a terribly good look if this is the film's damsel in distress.

But honestly, Naomi Watts should have known better! Did she lose a bet too? I just cannot believe for a moment that she actually believed in this story! Well, in fairness, maybe she did initially. But, good night nurse, during filming as she is brandishing a sniper rifle, didn't it occur to her that something was seriously amiss. Even her character as conceived is a major problem as she does indeed treat Henry more like a husband than as her 11 year old boy genius son, a family situation when pondered more closely, seems even creepier than the possible goings on next door.

Colin Trevorrow's "The Book Of Henry" is a soft hearted disaster of a movie that just never knows when to quit. Or better yet, it didn't know better than to scrap everything, just start over and make a  better film. That is not to say that this movie is unwatchable. Trust me, it has to be seen to be believed.

But even so, I cannot help but to wonder if this was the reason that Trevorrow lost out the lucrative gig of directing "Star Wars: Episode IX."   Based on "The Book Of Henry," we really dodged a bullet!

Monday, January 1, 2018

CRASH LANDING: a review of "The Mountain Between Us"

Based upon the novel  The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin
Screenplay Written by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe 
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
* (one star)
RATED PG 13 least they didn't eat the dog.

For all of you out there who may have entertained a certain fantasy of being luxuriously enclosed upon a mountaintop with the likes of either Kate Winslet or Idris Elba, then please allow me to vehemently steer you completely away from "The Mountain Between Us."

Woooo-eee is this a terrible movie, one where the survivalist danger in question is flat out arbitrary to the point of being laugh out loud comedic and the so-called love story is even worse. Frankly, both Winslet and Elba, who surprisingly possess zero chemistry, look absolutely miserable throughout the film, and honestly, for all of the scenes where each of them happen to look skywards in anguish, it just felt as if they were each desperately attempting to reach their respective agents telepathically, mentally delivering propulsive tongue lashings lambasting them for ever getting them to enter a project this preposterous and stupidly overwrought. 

Look, I do get it. I am  honestly not trying to be some sort of insufferable "film snob" who just can't go to a movie and have a good time with it. Not everything has to necessarily be "art," so to speak. The problem with a movie like "The Mountain Between Us" is that the execution is so astoundingly poor that I was unable to buy into the fantasy being presented to me whatsoever--even with people as jaw droppingly attractive and charismatic as Kate Winslet and Idria Elba filling every frame of the screen alongside the wintry, mountain vistas. Trust me, dear readers, you have been warned!!

"The Mountain Between Us" stars the aforementioned Kate Winslet as photojournalist Alex Martin and Idris Elba as neurosurgeon Ben Bass, complete strangers both of whom are struggling to find airline travel out of Idaho for a wedding and a crucial surgery, respectively. Unfortunately, due to a severe winter storm, all flights have been cancelled. But hey...the two meet and commiserate about their travel troubles and then decide to...wait for it...charter a plane to their respective destinations.

OK...right here, the film stumbles into its first deep pothole because would you charter a plane when EVERY airline has delayed all of their flights due to dangerously inclement weather? I didn't think so.  Furthermore, when it is revealed that none other than Beau Bridges would be the pilot, Iand even then, he would not even bother to record a flightplan, I was stunned that both Winslet and Elba did not just walk backwards out of the plane hanger, because we all know that Beau Bridges will not last long!

Well...true to form Bridges (who clearly took this role after losing a bet with his brother Jeff) knew the score as he dies from a downright hysterical stroke mid flight causing the plane to crash, leaving only Alex (with an injured leg), Ben and the pilot's unnamed and delightfully happy dog as the survivors.

From there, "The Mountain Between Us" becomes a tale of survival and the threesome are stranded in the frigid wilderness and forced to attempt to make their way back to civilization with all manner of obstacles like nearly falling off of cliffs, facing down hungry mountain lions, descending through cracked ice, lethal frostbite and even more lethal dialogue, contrived situations, arguments and most certainly, their hot blooded attraction towards each other.

Oh boy. Again, I get it. From a fantasy perspective, I can clearly understand the whirlwind of being ensconced with Ms. Winslet or Mr. Elba (myself included--but truth be told, not on a mountaintop as I am an indoor type of person--a dream date with Ms. Winslet at a coffee shop would be heaven, but I digress). By why oh why, did the film have to be so ill conceived from the get-go with completely under-written, one note characters that are flatter than the pages they were written on?

Not for any instant did either Alex or Ben ever feel like real people and since both Winslet and Elba had no real characters to play, I cannot blame them for the shallowness of their performances, which never generated any sense of realism, peril, or even romantic tension.

All we received was Alex's confounding habit of taking photographs while fighting for survival and her pestering of Ben to reveal the nature of his relationship with his wife, which of course is fraught with a pre-fabricated backstory/tragedy that you will see coming a mile away...just like about 70% of the hackneyed dialogue, manufactured.arguments, and preposterous decisions on the part of the characters and filmmakers. Hell, even the potential sexual tension is painfully undercooked because hey, this is a PG 13 film, so a wasted opportunity that was, huh?

Look...this film got to be so ridiculous that I felt the need to entertain myself throughout somehow and it was indeed through the presence of the dog, who even after surviving a face off with that aforementioned mountain lion, conveyed a happy-go-lucky, constantly wagging tail spirit that belied absolutely everything the film was attempting to convey.

In fact, the dog was clearly having so much fun playing in the snow, the filmmakers often entirely forgot about him as he would disappear for long stretches only to re-appear in high spirits as he pranced around Winslet and Elba who were desperately trying to illicit some sense of frozen, near death terror. And so, in addition to wondering if the dog would have to be eaten, I often asked aloud, "Where's the dog????" anytime he mysteriously vanished. Yes, the little things when  faced with a terrible movie.

There's really not much more to say about a movie like "The Mountain Between Us" where not much makes that much sense, let alone the maudlin title. Please, even if you just love staring at either Kate Winslet or Idria Elba or both, just find some photos on these interwebs and gaze away as a still photograph is more compelling than any one moment in this  awful movie.


HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone and may 2018 prove itself to be bountiful in its offerings for all of us...especially when we go to the movies!

For this month, as it always has been for myself and my movie-going activities, January 2018 finds itself to exist as a 2017 wrap-up, as certain end-of-the-year major releases find themselves being widely released during the month.
In addition to Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread," I am also eagerly awaiting the full release of Steven Spielberg's "The Post," a film that feels could not be more timely, even if it were entirely printed upon the front pages of all of our morning papers.

Aside from those two films, I do have another new review in the hopper and beyond even that, I will also begin to reveal my annual Savage Scorecard list of my favorite and least favorite films of the now previous year.

With that, it is time to get myself back to the woodshed, so to speak. So, as always, I ask for you to wish me good health and I will pace myself and hopefully deliver to the best of my abilities. And, of course,once again, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!