Director Paul Thomas Anderson is famous for his portrayals of decidedly American heroes (a porn star in Boogie Nights, California oil prospector in There Will Be Blood, and charismatic Scientologist-style leader in The Master), yet his latest film, Phantom Thread, focuses on a London fashion designer from what may have been Britain’s dowdiest era—the 1950s. Day-Lewis has announced that since he immerses himself so deeply into the characters he plays, that this is his last starring role, and the entire film is a set-up to make sure Daniel Day-Lewis is an Oscar nominee for his performance. Reynolds Woodcock is a fastidiously self-centered individual who designs dresses for “the Royals.” When he adopts a plain, young, working-class girl named Alma (Vicky Krieps) to be the centerpiece model for his latest collection, he assuage any fears of impropriety by telling her (in a soft voice), that he is “an incurable bachelor.” If you recall Henry Higgins saying almost the exact same thing to the flower-girl Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, you might assume that this will be a Pygmalion tale of the designer falling in love with the girl he creates. You would be wrong. Phantom Thread is more like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where the “afraid of change” male becomes obsessed with the ideal woman he creates using hairstyle, makeup, perfume and dresses. If you doubt the similarities, note the names of the designer and his model (Alma was Mrs. Hitchcock’s name). To top things off, the McGuffin is straight out of Hitchcock’s Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine film, Suspicion.
Way back in the pre-fake-news time of 1971, the New York Times began publishing excerpts from the classified “Pentagon Papers,” stolen by government researcher Daniel Ellsberg. The damning revelations about America’s real reasons for the Vietnam War rattled National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger so much, he convinced President Nixon that they needed to stop publication to prevent dissemination of any future secrets. Attorney General John Mitchell invoked the Espionage Act and a judge ordered the Times to “cease and desist.” In reaction, The Washington Post began running excerpts from the documents, and this film artfully presents the results of that historic decision. In the same time-frame, Post editor Ben Bradlee is focused on his front-page scoop about the White House’s involvement with the Watergate burglary. Behind the scenes, Post publisher Katherine Graham is planning on saving the paper’s future by floating a public stock offering. The fast-paced conflict between what is right for the business and what is right for Freedom of the Press in the United States become the crucible that forges both heroes and villains. Steven Spielberg has created a great movie, right up there with an earlier film featuring some of the same players—1977’s eight-Oscar-nominee All the Presidents Men.
Researchers note that 17 is the age of peak male sexuality, and Elio (Timothee Chalamet) personifies that biological fact. Self-absorbed, the youngster dabbles in composing music for guitar and piano, and has a girlfriend he visits when it suits his fancy. He lives in a lovely Italian villa with his parents, where his archeologist father hires a 24-year-old all-American-male (Armie Hammer), as his summer-time assistant. At first, Elio ignores the newcomer, but they share common interests and eventually become friends, and it is Elio who actively pursues the “with benefits” part of the friendship. James Ivory wrote the screenplay from Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel, and director Luca Guadagnino artfully evokes the steamy undercurrents that pluck all five senses. The actors are perfectly cast—Chalamet aggressively naive, Hammer older, wiser, and willing to allow time and space for things to evolve naturally. The result is a masterpiece of languid flawlessness that lingers in the mind and makes us ask, “Was that real?”
Gil Mansergh’s Cinema Toast Good picks for the Week of 12/29/17—In Toasty order Thor: Ragnarok (PG-13) 4 pieces of much needed lightness in the often dreary Marvel Universe toast Coco (PG) 3 and 1/2 pieces of an enjoyable holiday treat toast Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (PG) 3 pieces of they got me when they hired Dwayne Johnson toast Star Wars: The Last Jedi (PG-13) 3 pieces of could have been GREAT, but the marketing-driven, tangential story-lines slow things down toast Wonder (PG) 3 pieces of everyday miracles toast
Gary Oldman is Historic as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Ensemble casts delightful in Downsizing and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
In Darkest Hour, it's 1940,the Nazis are invading France, and the 21 mile width of the English Channel seems to offer scant protection for Great Britain. Rising to the challenge is British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (played by Gary Oldman in full speechifying mode), and the nearly miraculous mobilization of Dunkirk. We’ve been awash with different actors portraying Churchill, and it seems obvious that capturing the totality of this larger-then-life, once-in-a-century individual, is beyond the powers of mere mortals. One distraction is that the musical score fails at presenting the nuanced reality of these goings-on, and is often so loud that it drowns out Churchill’s wisdom.
Catch two Del Toros this week—director Guillermo in The Shape of Water, and actor Bencio in The Last Jedi
All of Guillermo Del Toro’s movies are lush, intensely sensual imaginings filled with dreamlike wonder. In The Shape of Water, sexuality is finally allowed to take center stage. The sexy woman part is an unlikely candidate named Elisa Espisito (Sally Hawkins)—a mute, mousey, and orphaned Baltimore cleaning lady who mops up blood in a top-secret laboratory. The blood comes from “The Asset” (Doug Jones), an amphibious Creature From the Black Lagoon-stye humanoid stolen from the Amazon River. Late one night, Elisa discovers The Asset housed in a murky-water aquarium and makes contact by playing music on her portable record player and feeding him hard boiled eggs. Overhearing the plan to dissect The Asset for scientific research, Elisa whisks him away to her own apartment where he lives in her bathtub. Growing closer, the pair make semi-amphibious love before his hiding place is discovered by the Bible-thumping, military-industrial-complex mad scientists and Cold War Russian spies. Wow!
For decades, the consensus was that writer/director/producer Ed Wood’s 1959 film, Plan 9 From Outerspace was the worst movie ever made. The notoriety was so great, it prompted late-night TV marathons, a special showing in Santa Rosa, and a Hollywood movie about the making of the film starring Johnny Depp as Ed Wood. Then, in 2003, Tommy Wiseau, wrote, directed, produced and starred in a feature-length Indie he called The Room. The plot involved Tommy, his almost always topless girlfriend, Lisa and her “secret” affair with Tommy’s best friend. It almost ends with Tommy’s graphic suicide by handgun. The result was “marginal” at best, until it won the 2004 Best Feature Audience Award at the New York International Independent Film Festival. Since then, the movie and its maker have acquired cult status—especially among the students at colleges and universities that offer a degree in filmmaking. Now, in The disaster Artist, James Franco stars and directs a film about The Room in which he plays Tommy Wiseau. Like Depp did with Ed Wood, Franco plays Tommy as a dedicated “artiste” who truly believes he is making a good movie. Since we audiences are much more sophisticated and worldly-wise, we see the humorous aspects of the endeavor, and revel in the disaster that unfolds. Especially fun for those who make (or wanna make) Indie films toast
In Sean Baker's The Florida Project, the ironically-named Magic Castle and Futureland motels sit next to each other in Kissimee, Florida. This is close enough to Walt Disney World that Halley, the single mother of 6-year-old Moonee can regularly shake down the tourists and steal food to survive. But prostitution is much more lucrative (especially when she steals cash and valuable park passes), so she begins servicing “tricks” after locking her daughter in the bathroom. The motel manger discovers what is going on, and threatens Halley with eviction and a call to Child Protective Services. It sounds depressing, but since we see things through a child’s eyes, everything is accepted as “normal,” and the Florida Project would make a great compare-and-contrast double-bill with Lady Bird toast
When Pixar writer/director Adrian Molina’s brainchild, Coco was released in Mexico on the recent Dia de los Muertas (Day of the Dead), the film about a musically-gifted 12-year-old boy who runs away from his “no-music-allowed” home and stumbles into a parallel universe-de-muertos populated by humorous skeletons and prophetic spirit-animals quickly became Mexico’s highest-grossing film of all time. Coco’s problem is that he must find his way back to the land of the living before the day is done, or be stuck with the dead ones forever. Sounds simple enough, except there are so many distractions for a music-obsessed youngster. Every being on the other side loves to create and play music including his feisty, long dead, great, great, great grandmother Imelda, the charismatic troubador, Hector, who willingly agrees to help Coco—but still must stop occasionally to sing a song or three, a very friendly stray dog named Dante, and Miguel’s favorite musician Ernesto de la Cruz—a 1940’s crooner killed by a freak accident with a church bell. The opening scenes are crammed full of exposition, but once they are liberated from the constraints of the conventional “real-world,” the animators have created a masterpiece of wild sights and sounds where the “other side” appears to be a happy, and very musical place to be.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age movie, Lady Bird proves that the universality of high school angst can be fresh, alive and exciting. The title is the nick-name of a Sacramento teen attending an all girls Catholic High School. Longing to escape to New York City, Lady Bird attempts to expand her circle beyond her perpetually sunny Best-Friend, and develops an experimental crush for a boy in the all-boys Catholic school. A moody drummer soon becomes boyfriend #2, but, to Lady Bird’s dismay, he is even more disappointing than boyfriend #1. Unlike most teen movies, parents are critical to the gestalt that is Lady Bird (both the character and the movie). There are interactive scenes between mother and daughter that are miniature masterpieces in a movie filled with astoundingly well-crafted performances. This film is a winner!