PHANTOM THREAD (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is a certain feeling that envelops me while experiencing exquisite filmmaking. It’s a singular blend of peacefulness and excitement as an anticipation of greatness builds in those early scenes. That feeling has rarely swept over me as quickly as the opening moments of this new film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, a six-time Oscar nominee.

We need only watch Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) go through his morning ritual to understand that he is a fastidious individual to the point that could easily be described as obsessive-compulsive. It’s 1955 London, and this is the House of Woodcock. He lives and works in a home that serves as the canvas for his art, as well as a place to lay his head for sleep. His art is dressmaking. It’s also his obsession and purpose for living. This is the story of a man with transformative talent, who, despite his stated lack of need for those outside his solitary realm, is dragged into the humanity of love and caring.

This is an odd film about odd people. It’s about a dressmaker and it features people making beautiful clothes … yet it’s not a fashion movie. No, this is the study of a genius man and his muse – who is also his lover – and their unconventional saga of love. It’s also a consistently funny movie (and surprisingly so). Evidence that that 3 will always be a crowd, Woodcock’s devoted sister and buttoned-up business partner Cyril (a terrific Leslie Manville) runs a tight ship, while simultaneously using her near preternatural ability to read his moods and idiosyncrasies and respond accordingly. He refers to her as “my old so-and-so” in a way that reflects a lifelong bond unlikely to be broken.

The woman who prevents this from simply being a story of a reclusive genius is the aforementioned muse Alma (played by the effervescent Vicky Krieps). Is she his muse, a model, or his lover? Well, yes to all. And yet those labels fall short in describing the subtleties and nuances of their relationship. When does she play which role in order to maintain the balance so key to his work? Alma is often confused about the best approach in any moment, but she reaches him as none before. When she tells Woodcock that a certain client “doesn’t deserve your dress”, it strikes a chord with him that no one else has ever understood. It’s as close to ‘getting him’ as one can attain.

Ms. Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in their scenes. He is simply the greatest living actor, and maybe the best ever at his profession. Her blushy cheeks and determined eye of observation bely an inner strength that isn’t necessarily obvious at first glance. The twist in this “romance” is unlike any other love story from the big screen. While he is haunted by the memories of a cherished mother, Alma presents a more immediate force of reckoning. Is she his tender savior or a menace of danger? It’s fascinating to watch this unfold.

Most know by now that Daniel Day-Lewis has announced this will be his final acting role. We can only compare this to the retirements of Sandy Koufax or Jim Brown. We feel cheated by the void of greatness left by their departures, and if this is truly his final role, the DDL legacy is supremely secure. His meticulous performance shines not only through the quirky OCD moments, but even moreso in the seemingly spontaneous moments of bickering and annoyance … moments that come across ad-libbed instead of scripted – these sound (and feel) like real life arguments!

Supposedly, filmmaker Anderson based the character on Spanish-Basque designer Cristobal Balenciaga, and Day-Lewis research added other elements of authenticity. It’s their first movie together since the fantastic THERE WILL BE BLOOD ten years ago, and theirs seems to be a synchronicity that few actors and directors ever share. Mr. Anderson shot the movie himself, and his use of close-ups – faces, fingers, sewing needles – capture the delicacies as well as the power. The final piece of this glorious puzzle is the orchestral score provided by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It’s both prominent and intricate, with stunning piano work that stands on its own. This is a movie about greatness by those who are also great.

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PADDINGTON 2 (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The sequel to the hit 2014 PADDINGTON movie reunites most of the cast, as well as the director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby. Unfortunately, Michael Bond, Paddington Bear’s creator and author of more than 150 affiliated books passed away in 2017, and was not able to see this most charming follow-up. The beloved little bear first hit UK bookstores in 1958 and has been part of the childhood of every generation of kids since. Now the movies have given life to the little bear with the red hat, blue coat and tiny suitcase.

The entirety of the Brown family returns: Sally Hawkins as Mary, Hugh Bonneville as Henry, Madeleine Harris as Judy, Samuel Joslin as Jonathan, Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird, and Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber. Also back are Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington’s “aunt” and “uncle”, and of course, Ben Whishaw returns as the familiar voice of the adored and oh-so-polite bear.

Most notable among the new faces are Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles (that’s with a capital N), and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, this story’s two-faced (and maybe more) villain. You’ve likely never seen the usually reserved and proper Mr. Grant in a role quite so colorful and flamboyant. He seems to be having a devilishly good time.

As the movie begins, we are quickly assimilated into the community where Paddington has made such a difference. The core element to this bear is that he treats all with kindness and finds the best in each person. The results of this approach are clear in how his neighbors enthusiastically greet him each morning … it’s a reminder of the power of kindness. Only when Phoenix Buchanan’s dastardly deed and actions catch Paddington in the crossfire does the film take an abrupt left turn from his blissful life.

If the film has a flaw, it’s in a story that is likely too complex and intricate for the youngest viewers to follow. However, it’s that story that older kids (and grown-ups) will most appreciate and relate to. Younger kids may be lost at times, but there are enough visual pratfalls and bear hijinks to keep them oohing and aahing and laughing – I witnessed these reactions in a theatre that was about half-filled with kids.

This sequel will probably be viewed as an improvement to what was a pretty entertaining original. There is enjoyment for all ages, and it’s a rare combination of cuteness and charm with a strong message of kindness. If that’s not enough for you, stay for the credits and take in the Bollywood-style musical number that will erase any doubts you might have had about Hugh Grant’s commitment to the mission.

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COCO (2017)

December 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite my two-decades long worshipping at the animated alter of Pixar, the trailer for this one just never struck a chord with me. Thank goodness there was a late night showing aboard my recent Disney cruise, or I might still not have caught this gem that ranks among Pixar’s best … and this is the studio that has gifted us the TOY STORY franchise, THE INCREDIBLES, UP, and INSIDE OUT – instant classics, each and every one.

Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina team up as co-writers and co-directors for the 19th feature film from Pixar Studios. It’s the second Pixar film this year (CARS 3), but the first original (non-sequel) since 2015 (THE GOOD DINOSAUR, INSIDE OUT). This latest not only offers the most advanced visuals to date, it also features a complex story that touches on numerous topics: Mexican culture, family legacy, religious traditions, loyalty, following one’s own path, respect for the elderly, and remembrance of those deceased. If all of that sounds a bit too heavy-handed and deep for kids, keep in mind that Pixar charmed us with UP, the story of a man whose wife dies – yet, they kept us laughing with one word …”squirrel!”

The story focuses on young Miguel and his desire to sing and play guitar despite his long-standing family ban on music. Miguel is convinced he is related to the most famous Mexican performer in history, Ernesto de la Cruz, and he concocts a plan that corresponds to Dia de Muertos to convince his family that he must be allowed to play music. The film is respectful to this tradition as the living pay tribute to those who have passed. The deceased are invited back for this one night with beautiful flowers guiding them from the Land of the Dead to that of the living.

Miguel’s adventure is quite a wild ride as he navigates the path between the living and the dead. Somehow the film is even a visual step up from the colorful beauty of UP and INSIDE OUT, with the city and the unique flying creature being exceptionally stunning. The Pixar charm and personality are evident throughout – even in Dante, the ever-present dog. Many Mexican celebrities and historical figures (including Frida Kahlo) are noted, but at its core, this is the story of a boy pursuing his dream, no matter the obstacles.

Pixar fans will be relieved to know that the Pizza Planet truck makes an appearance, as does A113, and numerous other Easter eggs. John Ratzenberger keeps his Pixar streak alive, and though Anthony Gonzalez (Miguel), Gael Garcia Bernal (Hector) and Benjamin Bratt (Ernesto de la Cruz) all do fine work, this one is not so much about the voice acting as it is about the tremendous story and art work. Remarkably, Pixar has done it again … an animated masterpiece that is among its finest yet. Parents should note that the film is rated PG, rather than G. There are talking skeletons and a couple of scenes that could frighten young kids.

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I, TONYA (2017)

December 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Your recollection of Tonya Harding is likely not that she was the 1991 U.S. Champion figure skater and a two-time Olympian. And rather than honoring her as the first female skater to land a triple axel in competition, you likely remember “the incident” in 1994 where she whacked her on-ice rival Nancy Kerrigan on the knee with a club. Only Ms. Harding wasn’t the one who attacked Ms. Kerrigan … and that’s only the beginning to what director Craig Gillespie (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I LOVE YOU, and a bunch of other mushy stuff) detail in this madcap look at a reality infinitely stranger than most fiction.

Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) stars as Tonya Harding, and it’s a career-defining performance … funny, tragic, physical and emotionally charged. This isn’t the expected bleak biopic, but rather it’s a brilliant blend of parody, docudrama, and dark comedy focused on some real life folks that will surely make you grateful for your life. Harding’s abusive, profane and icy mother LaVona is played with aplomb by Allison Janney, who manages to bring some humor to the role of a woman whose approach went far beyond the realm of tough love and straight into cruelty. Sebastian Stan plays Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser is Shawn Eckhardt, his friend and co-conspirator. In regards to these last two gents, we spend most of the film trying to decide if they are goofy, ignorant or downright dangerous (or all of the above).

Director Gillespie expertly weaves together the domestic scenes, ice skating scenes, and “current” interviews with the main characters. The domestic scenes include Tonya and Jeff, Tonya and her mother, Eckhardt with Tonya and Jeff, and Eckhardt with his own parents. The ice skating scenes emphasize how hard Tonya worked and her relationship with Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), while the interviews (recreated from actual interviews) provide contradictory details from the memories of Tonya, Jeff, Eckhardt and LaVona. The film tries not to make fun of them, but they kind of do it to themselves.

Bobby Cannavale appears as a “Hard Copy” reporter who provides some story structure by walking us through the timeline as reported by the media at the time. McKenna Grace plays a young Tonya, while Caitlin Carver is Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya has long been labeled as the most “notorious” figure skater, and a failed boxing career was the closest she came to capitalizing on her notoriety after the scandal. Her life and the incident have been the basis for songs, books, news specials, documentaries, TV parodies, and even a Brooklyn-based museum. The film reminds us that truth and recollections are open to interpretation, and that there is much more to the story than what was reported. Respect is too much for Tonya to hope for, but this excellent and entertaining film might deliver a dose of compassion or empathy (along with incredulity and some laughs).

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THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017)

November 22, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most would agree there is only one Christmas story that surpasses the popularity and familiarity of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, and both have had numerous film and screen adaptations. Rather than offer up yet another film version of the Dickens novella, director Bharat Nalluri (MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, 2008) instead uses the Susan Coyne screenplay adapted from the non-fiction work of Les Standiford to present the lively and entertaining tale of HOW Dickens wrote his iconic book.

Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 2017) stars as the esteemed writer Charles Dickens, and he bounds from scene to scene like a moody and spoiled Energizer Bunny. Attempts to capture the process behind creative writing usually falls into one of two buckets: dry and boring, or outlandish and over-the-top. Mr. Stevens easily fits into the latter, but as a testament to the strength of the story and supporting cast, we viewers are nonetheless quite entertained.

It should surprise no one that Christopher Plummer steals each of his scenes as Ebenezer Scrooge. What a delight to behold the talented octogenarian as he leaves us wishing for even more of the grumpy and miserly old former partner of Jacob Marley. Jonathan Pryce also excels as Charles’ father John, a charming man who has never quite figured out the economics of life … and whose long ago debt sent young Charles to a work house mixing shoe black. Even as an adult, Charles had recurring nightmares of his time in child labor, and fortunately he was able to use those memories to create many long-lasting stories, each oblivious to generational change.

In 1843 London, the renowned Dickens is coming off three straight flops and experiencing financial woes that are exacerbated by his insistence on the finest materials for the large home he and wife Kate (Morfydd Clark, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP) are renovating. Dickens is in the midst of severe writer’s block, and only the quiet strength of his wife and never-wavering loyalty of friend/agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) are able to keep in from sinking to even lower emotional depths. Screen veteran Miriam Margolyes plays the housekeeper, and Anna Murphy is Tara, the Irish nanny who serves as a muse for Dickens.

Having the characters of the story appear on screen and interact with the writer is a terrific way to explain how the creative mind works, although at times, the sources of ideas, characters and key lines seem a bit too convenient. We often get the feeling that perhaps too much was crammed into the run time, what with the conflicts over money, renovations, family matters, and publishing. The best parts are also the easiest with which to relate – those involving the characters and the story slowly coming together.

Simon Callow plays John Leech, the famed illustrator of the finished novella, and Miles Jupp adds a bit of twisted fun as Dickens’ rival William Makepeace Thackery. There are some interesting lines that add color, such as, “People will believe anything if you are properly dressed”, and “blood of iron, heart of ice”. It’s these pieces that allow us to view this as a journey of self-discovery for the author, and not just a famous story being assembled. The overall trouble with the film stems from that title. It seems we could have expected more than a tease of what Christmas was at the time, and more specifically how “A Christmas Carol” inspired a revolutionary new approach to the holiday. We are left to connect many dots. In fact, Dickens didn’t so much invent Christmas as allow folks to re-imagine it.

Is “A Christmas Carol” the most famous Dickens story? Arguments could also be made for “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield”, “Little Dorrit”, “Nicholas Nickelby”, and of course, “A Tale of Two Cities”. What can’t be argued is the brilliance of the writer and the impact of his books. His passion is evident in his determination to self-publish at a time when such practice was a rare as it is commonplace today. The film is rated PG, but younger kids are likely to be confused with the frenetic approach; however, all ages will get a merry kick out of Mr. Plummer’s Scrooge!

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ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017)

November 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Denzel Washington is one of our most iconic actors and he’s put together a remarkable career, including 8 Oscar nominations and two wins. He’s had his Al Pacino SCARFACE comparable with TRAINING DAY, his Robert DeNiro GOODFELLAS comparable with AMERICAN GANGSTER, and here he gets his Dustin Hoffman RAIN MAN as he plays the titular Roman J. Israel, Esquire. It’s a role that lacks Denzel’s usual cool factor, but it’s one in which he dives head first.

‘Esquire’ rates “above gentleman, but below Knight” as described by Roman. He has spent more than 30 years as the wizard behind the curtain of a two man law firm run by his mentor and partner William “Bulldog” Jackson. We never really meet Mr. Jackson, as circumstances force the closing of the firm and shove an uncomfortable-with-change Roman into the high profile and high dollar firm run by George Pierce. Mr. Pierce is played by a strutting Colin Farrell – and no actor peacocks better than he.

It’s here we must note that Roman appears to have a touch of Asperger’s and/or be some type of legal Savant. He’s kind of a Dr. Gregory House for the legal profession – remarkable on the details, while lacking in the delivery. His long held idealism and belief system were in fine form while he was the back office guy, but Pierce forces him into the front lines and it’s a bumpy transition with sometimes comic and sometimes tragic results.

The film bookends with Roman crafting a legal brief, that while somewhat convoluted, is actually more of a confession, with himself as both plaintiff and defendant. Much of the film focuses on Roman’s idealism and revolutionary beliefs, and what happens when that crumbles. There is an odd quasi-love interest with Maya, played by Carmen Ejogo (SELMA). We never really grasp why she is so taken by him, other than his seemingly solid belief system reminds her that a mission of goodness and justice is always worth fighting for.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy is one of the quiet secret weapons in Hollywood these days. His last project was the terrific NIGHTCRAWLER, and he’s also written the screenplays for this year’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and one of my favorites from 2006, THE FALL. Here he teams with Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) to deliver a stylish look that feels unique to the story and characters … the frumpy look of Roman, the ultra-slick look of Pierce, and the various textures of the city. It’s really something to behold – especially when accompanied by Roman’s ringtone of Eddie Kendrick’s “Keep on Truckin’”. A couple of cast members worth mentioning: for you NBA fans, Sedale Threat Jr (son of the long time player), and simply for catching my eye in the closing credits, an actor named Just N. Time. There is plenty to discuss after this one, but mostly it’s a chance to watch Denzel chew scenery.

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LADY BIRD (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).

Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.

Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).

The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.

Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.

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