Friday, January 12, 2018

'Phantom Thread,' Caught In A Gothic Romance

"I want your drama, the touch of your hand..."

There's something about putting on a perfect dress that has either been made for you, or at least feels as if it has. It can feel like somehow, this dress knows who you are; what you want to accentuate and what you want hide, dress and wearer both bringing out the best in the other. The perfect dress can be a silent exclamation of self, helping you tell the world, "This is me, at my best."

It's almost a romance.

P.T. Anderson's Phantom Thread, centered on mid-1950's haute couture dress designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), is also an odd romance. Woodcock, along with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, manicured perfection), runs the House of Woodcock from the same multi-storied, London building they both call home. Their clients include royalty and socialites, and Reynolds lives a rigid life that allows for a live-in muse, though not marriage.

As the film begins, he sits down to breakfast with his sister and the latest in what is clearly a long line of women who he keeps around as long as they provide some kind of amusement and inspiration. Once they become annoying, he is through with them. "Is there nothing I can say to draw your attention back on me?" his latest muse asks. There isn't, and it doesn't take long before Reynolds has moved on to another muse, instantly infatuated with the slightly gawky and endearingly clumsy waitress at a hotel near his country home.

Alma (Vicky Krieps), a German immigrant at least half Woodcock's age, appears to be the perfect muse for Reynolds, eager, open, and with the perfect shape. (Sister Cyril can't resist telling Alma "he likes a bit of a belly," as she records Alma's measurements at the end of Alma and Reynolds's first date).

Being fitted for a dress, and being praised for perfect proportions, ("It's my job to give you breasts," says Reynolds, after Alma apologizes for her small size), is a form of seduction Reynolds has likely used before, and Alma is not immune.

But Alma shows some steadfastness from the beginning, never letting him get the last word he so desperately seeks in almost every conversation. She questions his aesthetic, and challenges his rigidity. It's clear Alma will not be discarded so easily.

"I want your horror, I want your design..."

I've seen Phantom Thread twice now. I initially went into it with perhaps too much enthusiasm directed at the wrong thing. Combining one of my favorite filmmakers with a story centered on my favorite period of fashion (almost every dress I own is older than I am by decades), seemed like something too good to be true. I was expecting too much from the fashion in the film, which, while beautiful, is nothing that would have made it into the history books.

Upon second viewing, I realized that's kind of the point. Anderson and costume designer Mark Bridges did a lot of research, and were influenced by the work and lives of couturiers Balenciaga, Dior, and Charles James. But they didn't choose to just copy some of their most elaborate gowns. What Reynolds Woodcock creates is beautiful, but in many ways as staid and stiff as he is.

Near the end of the movie he goes on a rant after hearing a longtime client has begun to shop at a different house, searching for something new and "chic." He screams about how much he detests that little word, chic. Reynolds has singular vision, but he's been at it for years, and he doesn't seem too interested in innovation.

Once I got past obsessing about the clothes, I was better able to appreciate the intricacies of the story and the very, very, weird and Gothic romance at the center of it. Reynolds, like many a self-centered man, has major mother issues. He designed the dress for his mother's second wedding, and he is forever haunted by her, designing for her approval, which will never again come. A romance with someone like that might seem doomed from the beginning, but Alma's solution drives the film firmly into the realm of sublime dark comedy.

The film is not only about a romance, but is itself deeply romantic. Johnny Greenwood's classical and ever-present score is lush and almost a character unto itself; I can't imagine the movie succeeding without it, so integral is the mood it sets. Anderson was his own cinematographer, and photographs the film so that it frequently seems to take place on an overcast day, with muted light that allows its jewel-toned fashions to pop off the screen. (See it projected in 70mm if you can).

Daniel Day Lewis has famously said this will be his last acting role. Whether that's true or not, it's interesting to see him attempt to leave on a note of subtlety. This is not like many of the bombastic roles he's played in the past, but it is no less impressive. The way he is able to convey utter annoyance and contempt by merely flexing his jaw and turning his head illustrates more than screaming ever could.

His scenes with Vicky Krieps have a magical frisson, and it's fitting that a relative unknown should be cast against him. It's easy to assume she might wilt opposite someone like Daniel Day Lewis, but like Alma, Krieps doesn't do the expected in any of her scenes with him. In one of those scenes, an epic battle over a home cooked meal, its clear much of their dialogue is improvised, which gives the whole argument the sting of painful reality.

Two viewings of Phantom Thread may not be enough. Like the reaction to a well made dress, first you are taken in by its aesthetic. Then you can appreciate its construction. After that comes the joy in slipping it on again, and again...


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Is Funny, Heavy, And Challenging

The welcomed return of this Rey of light.

While I loved The Force Awakens more than any Star Wars sequel or prequel since The Empire Strikes Back, I couldn't exactly argue against anyone who criticized its story structure, and how it's as much a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope as it is a sequel. That argument is valid, but that type of movie is what I, and many Star Wars fans burned by the prequels, needed.

So going into The Last Jedi, I was a little worried the story might take the same route, essentially giving us a soft remake of Empire. My worries were unfounded. While The Last Jedi acknowledges the inevitable comparisons to that second (or fifth, whatever) Star Wars movie by setting up some similar scenarios, it then does original and surprising things with those moments.

Yes, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who found the elusive Luke (Mark Hamill, at full intensity) at the end of The Force Awakens, much like Luke finds Yoda in Empire, is all set to do some similar Jedi training with the aging master. And much like Yoda, Luke shows reluctance to be a teacher. But his reluctance isn't a mere test. He really doesn't want anything to do with the Jedi or the Resistance.

And as in Empire, our beloved band of players spend the majority of the movie separated. Finn (John Boyega), after initially recovering from his injuries on board the ship led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, sniffle), ventures on a quest with newcomer Rose (a great Kelly Marie Tran). And Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), demonstrates he's even more of the cocky pilot he appeared to be in his first outing. His first scene in the movie, with Domhnall Gleeson's smarmy General Hux, is also hilarious, and a perfect introduction to the film's comedic tone.

There's a lot of humor in The Last Jedi, and I imagine some may criticize it for it. But it's the kind of smart humor that was also present in the original trilogy, and sorely lacking in the prequels. (Which isn't to say the prequels were lacking in any attempts at humor; it's just that the humor usually relied on Jar Jar Binks saying something stupid or stepping in alien shit.)

Hello comic relief!

But the movie is also surprisingly heavy. Rian Johnson doesn't shy away from some basic facts. Luke and Leia are growing older, and the weight of their experience has them questioning the worth of the Resistance, especially since the Resistance has suffered some major losses. Are more worth it?

Rey continues to question her place in all of it, with the longing to find her parents as strong as ever. And Kilo Ren (Adam Driver), whose inner conflict can't be hidden from Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), begins to question his place as the Supreme Masked Baddie. Almost all of the characters face moments where they must make some pretty tough decisions, and it all adds genuine tension to the film.

More tension than a lot of the battle sequences, to be honest, of which there are more than enough, with most centered on the need to stall the enemy so the Resistance can get something done in time. This is the longest Star Wars movie yet, clocking in at 150 minutes, and it has at least one ending too many, and a middle that sags a bit.

Still, its longer length does allow us to spend some time in some beautiful new worlds, like Luke's lushly green island, which is also home to some native creatures, including Porgs, the big-eyed, pot bellied birds that might convince you to become vegetarian; a gaudy planet filled with the galaxy's equivalent to one-percenters; and my favorite, a salt-covered world that reveals its blood-red center, a color that permeates the film.

It also leaves room for some good cameos. Along with the hyped cameos of Princes William and Harry (who, them playing storm troopers, are impossible to spot), also look out for Chewing Gum's Michaela Cole, model Lily Cole, and Justin Theroux. (I'll also have to see it again to figure out how director Rian Johnson worked the theme from The Long Goodbye, which was co-written by composer John Williams, into the movie, as the song title appears in the end credits)

One of my best movie-going memories is seeing The Empire Strikes Back in 1981. Seeing it on a weekend required standing in line for hours, so my family didn't get to partake in one of those opening weekend showings. But one weekday not long after it opened, my dad woke me up to get ready for school, and when I gave the usual complaint of "Ugh! I don't WANT to go to school" he said, "OK. Do you want to go see The Empire Strikes Back instead?" And we did.

Watching The Last Jedi, despite its faults, still managed to make me feel, more than once, like that excited eleven-year-old ditching school.


Friday, December 8, 2017

I, Tonya, You, America, Us, Guilty

You like me! You really like me!

Watching I, Tonya, I was reminded how batshit crazy the 1990's were. Along with acid washed jeans, platform sneakers, and crispy hair, the 90's were a golden age for tabloid stories. The internet didn't exist in the way it does now, and despite the emergence of the 24 hour news cycle, attention spans were longer. Tabloid stories were allowed to slowly build over weeks and months into craven dramas that captured the nation.

I'm talking things like Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco; John and Elena Bobbitt; the suicide of Kurt Cobain; Bill Clinton and Monica Lewlinsky; O.J. Simpson; and, of course, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, a story that includes tabloid gold and acid washed jeans and crispy hair.

I, Tonya takes an unconventional approach to that ice skating drama, mirroring the tabloid coverage it originally received. People weren't paying attention to the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan story because of a sudden national love of competitive ice skating. It was because the story was perfect in its symbolism (she tried to break the leg of her competition?!), and at times completely absurd (a key player is named Gillooly?!).

Play the story straight, and you've got yourself a Lifetime movie. But play up the story's absurdities, add a dash of GoodFellas-era Scorsese-style editing and music cues, and you've got yourself a surprising movie that will make you laugh while your heart breaks a little for Tonya Harding.

Set up as a mockumentary of sorts, I,Tonya opens with titles asserting it is "based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly." These interviews with Tonya (Margot Robbie) and Jeff (Sebastian Stan) are reenacted, with both of them in separate locations, both offering their completely unreliable retelling of the story.

Tonya's interview takes place in a dirty kitchen, dishes piled in a sink behind her. It's a nice nod to how an interview's setting can often illustrate an interviewer's intent, an intent often unbeknownst to the subject. From the moment Margot Robbie opens her mouth, and you hear her flat, West coast accent, you can tell this will be a performance that's a far cry from her work in films like The Wolf of Wall Street.

Robbie has at least five inches on the 5'1" Harding, who also had a strong, muscular athlete's build. Harding in her heyday could probably take down ladies a lot taller than herself (and likely did during her short stint as a celebrity boxer). But Robbie manages to make you forget those physical differences by channeling Harding's essence. She's got the trailer trash swagger, paired with the vulnerability of a woman who has been beaten down her entire life, both literally and figuratively.

The story follows Tonya from the age of three, when her nightmare of a mother, LaVona Golden (an Oscar-worthy Allison Janney), insists the local figure skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), take her on as a student. Diane doesn't take girls that young, but can't deny the little girl has a gift.

LaVona's bullying doesn't stop at figure skating coaches. She's an objectively horrible woman, without a nice thing to say about anyone, especially Tonya, who is subject to her verbal and physical abuse throughout her childhood.

Of course LaVona insists it's all for Tonya's good. To her, this is what an effective stage mother does, and she offers no apologies for it during her interview moments, which are some of the best scenes in the film. Allison Janney talking to the camera, smoking, hooked up to an oxygen tank, while a pet parrot on her shoulder constantly badgers her has got to be part of her Oscar reel. (And the parrot deserves an award for Best Supporting Performance by a Bird.)

As Tonya leaves one abusive home she falls into another, marrying Jeff Gillooly, the first man she ever dates. It's not long before he's smashing her face into the wall and pointing guns at her, and while Tonya does fight back on occasion, the cycle of abuse assures she stays in the relationship way longer than she should, especially since it's Gillooly who eventually sets The Incident into motion.

"The Incident" is how the characters refer to the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and seeing the ineptitude of the people involved--Paul Walter Hauser steals every scene he's in as Gillooly's idiot friend Shawn Eckhardt--it's amazing they got away with it for as long as they did, which, granted, wasn't very long. (One of I, Tonya's best choices is to limit Nancy Kerrigan's place in the story, giving her maybe three lines in the entire film, with one one of those lines being "Whhhhhyyyyy??????!!!!!")

The film takes Tonya's insistence that she had nothing to do with The Incident as fact, and makes a compelling case for that as truth. But ultimately, it didn't matter whether she had or not. Harding had a target on her back within the snooty skating profession from day one, never living up to their beauty standards, or their idea of respectability. It didn't matter that she was the first woman to do a triple axle in competition. She didn't fit the part, and they would never let her forget it. Eventually, and with some glee, neither would the world.


Friday, December 1, 2017

The Good, The Bad, And 'The Disaster Artist'

A triumphant disaster

I first became aware of the phenomenon that is The Room by reading about it in Entertainment Weekly. Shortly after, Adult Swim aired it for one time only during their late night programming. That was the first time I watched it. It was edited for content, and ironically, that editing actually made it a better movie; there's only so much of director/writer/star Tommy Wiseau's bare ass one should be subjected to before it becomes cruel and unusual punishment.

Watching The Room is like watching a film created by an alien who is desperately trying to mimic human emotions and interactions. It's actually kind of an accomplishment for an actor to deliver every bit of his dialogue badly, but somehow, Wiseau manages it. That he can turn something as simple as "Oh, hi Mark" into a memorable line borders on amazing.

The closest I ever came to a communal viewing was watching the DVD while listening to its RiffTrax (recommended!), but maybe one day I'll actually check out a midnight showing (it still plays regularly in San Francisco) because watching The Room alone is something that shouldn't really happen more than once, and seeing it again is a hard urge to resist after watching The Disaster Artist, James Franco's ode to the legendary cinematic disaster.

Based on the book of the same name, written by actor and The Room costar Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), The Disaster Artist opens in the late 1990s "San Francisco," (like The Room, it is set in SF, but not actually filmed here), with a meet cute between Greg and Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in an acting class. Greg has just finished a terrible scene reading, and Tommy volunteers to go next. He chooses the "Stella" scene from A Streetcar Names Desire, and proceeds to chew the scenery, almost literally. He wails. He flails. He starts to climb the rafters. Greg, who has just been criticized for being emotionless, is enraptured. Maybe he can learn something from this nut!

While James Franco will always be better looking than the real Tommy Wiseau, even with the fake nose and wig he dons, he does manage to capture Wiseau's other-worldly essence; that accent that can't be placed (Tommy insists he's from Louisiana); line delivery that makes it sound like he's perpetually stoned or bored, even when he's screaming; and the feeling that he's only ever half listening to anything anyone says to him.

Tommy and Greg become fast friends and decide to move to Los Angeles to pursue their acting dreams. That Tommy has apartments in both San Francisco and Los Angeles doesn't go unnoticed by Greg, nor his white BMW. But where Tommy gets his money remains as mysterious as his origins.

Once the inevitable happens, with them both failing to land any substantial gigs, that mysterious money proves to be a potential savior when Tommy decides to make his own movie. He pounds out a script on a typewriter, insists Greg take the supporting role (the lead is Tommy's, of course), and then purchases all the equipment needed to film the movie, instead of renting it. Oh, and he also decides to shoot it on both video AND film.

Up to this point, The Disaster Artist is a pretty standard "Hollywood hopefuls" story, albeit one with a character who says he's from Louisiana, sounds like he's from Poland, but might actually be from another world. But once it gets into the actual filming of the movie within the movie, it gives the majority of the audience what they've been waiting for: a glimpse into just how something like The Room came to be.

The cast that makes up the film's crew is filled with comedians and Judd Apatow alums, including Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, and Hannibal Buress, and most of the scenes centered around the filming are very funny. But we also get a glimpse into what a nightmare The Room must have been to work on, with Tommy refusing his actors water, insisting on walking around the set naked while shooting the love scenes, and a shooting schedule ("Day 52 of 40") that drags on and on.

You can't make a "good" bad movie on purpose. The best bad movies had every intention of being good movies from the start. But at this point, I don't even know if The Room really is a "good" bad movie. Parts of it are unbearably boring, and I could barely make it through the sex scenes once, let alone the multiple times the movie's biggest fans are able to stomach. Unlike the grassroots emergence of the cult following that followed a film like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Room's cult success owes a lot to word of mouth from Hollywood insiders, those who stumbled upon it because of the enigmatic billboard that set up to advertise it, and the continuing existence of Tommy Wiseau himself, who, once he saw how crowds were responding to his movie, began to hype it as a black comedy. (Be sure to stay till after the credits for Wiseau's cameo.)

And I wonder if James Franco was drawn to the story because he felt some affinity to Tommy Wiseau. While Franco has now directed eighteen movies (18!!), he has never received the accolades I bet he feels he deserves. After that many flops, I can certainly imagine a director emerging from a screening of The Room filled with the fear that he's been making the same kind of movie this whole time. Maybe it just took a terrible movie to finally inspire James Franco to direct a good one.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Warm 'Coco'

The family resemblance is striking!

It's a rare Pixar movie that doesn't cause me to burst into tears at least once during its running time, so there was no doubt that Coco, the studio's latest, which is primarily set in Mexico's folkloric Land of the Dead, and deals with familial loss and memory, was going to require me to make use of a handkerchief at some point. (Turns out, I'd need two.)

Coco is centered on 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a music-loving kid who happens to be from the "only music-hating family in Mexico." Way back when, Miguel's great-great-grandfather left his wife Imelda and young daughter Coco to pursue his musical dreams, and was never heard from again. As a result, the family eschewed music entirely, banning both its playing and enjoyment, instead turning to shoe-making, a skill passed down for three generation.

But Miguel can't resist the draw of music, which he knows is in his blood. He builds his own guitar in a hidden clubhouse complete with an altar dedicated to his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous musician in Mexico's history. His conflict with his family comes to a boiling point on Día de Muertos, as the family prepares for the yearly celebration that honors their deceased ancestors, with Miguel running away and magically finding himself in the Land of the Dead.

A living boy is about as shocking a sight in the Land of the Dead as a walking skeleton would be in the Land of the Living, but luckily Miguel is able to track down his ancestors, including great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), who is being denied entry into the land of the living's Día de Muertos festivities for the first time since her death.

Coco's utilization of the traditions and folklore surrounding Día de Muertos is both clever and heartfelt. In order for the dead to return to Earth, someone on Earth must still be around who remembers them. The "proof" of this is a family's use of photos in their ofrendas, or altars. Imelda's photo is missing from Miguel's family's ofrenda, because Miguel has taken it. It's also the only existing photo of his great-great-grandfather (albeit not a complete one, as his face was torn out in anger, and has been missing ever since).

The Land of the Dead is one of Pixar's most enchanting worlds, unabashedly ethnic, filled with details you'll never be able to catch in a single viewing. Like the Mexican folklore that inspired it, it is vibrantly colored, walking the line between slightly morbid, and comically cute. Though the film is filled with walking and talking skeletons, they're never scary (the little ones should be fine), and their bony bodies are used to excellent comedic effect.

If I have any complaint with Coco, it's that it's a story Pixar has told many times before, centered on a lost character desperately trying to make it back home to family. With the addition of Miguel's daddy (or great-great-granddaddy) issues, Coco fits a little too comfortably into the Pixar formula.

But they can get away with these redundancies because the way they tell these familiar stories is consistently unique from film to film, and despite the formula, the emotional center of the stories never feels false.

In Coco, Miguel teams up with a raggedy skeleton named Hector (Gael García Bernal, in a performance that is both funny and heartbreaking), who is desperate to visit his family, but must remain in the Land of the Dead because there's seemingly no one left on earth who remembers him; once someone is forgotten, they cease to exist completely. That's the deep-seated melancholy at the center of Coco. The one commonality we all share as humans is our mortality, and it's a fact few truly like to face. But Coco gives us a warm vision of immortality, and its something every one of us has the power to conjure, every time we look through an old family album...