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Thursday
Jan112018

Phantom Thread

It's all a story Alma tells, sitting by the fire. The latest film from the pen and lens of Paul Thomas Anderson, PHANTOM THREAD is a perverse, comic, enchanted period piece that plays with the medium while working within a host of traditions—chiefly, in Anderson's words, the Gothic romance with suspense, à la Hitchcock's Rebecca. It's a great film, for its zaniness, its mysteries, its strange elisions and shifts of tone I still don't pretend to quite understand.  

Anderson's art does a lot of jumping off from various ideas, without quite sticking the landing, which can be breathtaking, but can also result in a curious (albeit fascinating) cryptic effect—the work can feel vague, sketchy. He's left a few rough edges here, too, but it's precisely that tension between rigorous preparation and bits that occur on the fly—the accidents, even—that give this picture its jazz, breath, and loose life. Right now, his range feels more limitless than any director of my generation. 

Alma, played uncannily by Vicky Krieps, is a young refugee, we assume (the characterizations are still rather impressionistic), with a straightforward, poetic way of speaking. She confides the strange tale of her love for Reynolds Woodcock to a "boy doctor" (in Reynolds' derisive phrase). Woodcock (what a grand, suggestive name—the character is based, loosely, on couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga), is the co-founder, with his icy sister Cyril (a stellar Lesley Manville), of the House of Woodcock, elite dressmakers to royals and stars in mid-'50s London. This was perhaps the Golden Age for couture, and the offer is there, should we chose to take it up, to see it as a metaphor for the Golden Age of Hollywood.  While the siblings are actually quite close—unusually so, in fact—they're a formal, stiff-upper-lip, postwar duo. 

In late middle age, Reynolds is a confirmed bachelor, a meticulous, finicky workaholic. He's the latest in Anderson's gallery of obsessive masters, but whereas the There Will Be Blood model was demented or demonic, Reynolds registers as mainly prickly. (In his exacting standards, he's a form of critic, I suppose.) If his routine is thrown off, he gets grumpy. We get a sense of the settled morning routine that Alma will soon disrupt, watching the stately manse (another Gothic staple) come to life in the morning: Reynolds making sure every eyebrow is in place, the seamstresses climbing the steps to the workshops.  

Driven to ply his craft at the highest level of quality, he can get carried away. (It's easy to see him as a self-satire of Day-Lewis or Anderson). After a frenzied bout of creativity he burns out, becomes melancholy, which is how he meets feisty Alma. She's a waitress near the country retreat where he repairs to renew himself. When he's on to the next thing—next woman, next project—he's a very hungry boy. He sure loves to tuck into a good old English breakfast, piling on the rarebit and sausages. 

He initially conceives of Alma as just the latest in a long line of women who will one day be summarily dismissed, but she becomes his headstrong muse and lover. Only this time, the muse—the mannequin—talks back. Along with Cyril, the three comprise a classic Gothic love triangle, though Anderson doesn't overelaborate it, or, some would say, really develop it. Back in London, Day-Lewis does a hilarious slow burn as noisy Alma disrupts his breakfast with "too much movement." (The dark British sarcasm here is, in its way, as witheringly funny as the milkshake violence of Blood—it's fun with power dynamics).  

If this film is about how to sustain a life of both creativity and cohabitation, then certainly the model provided by The Shining's Jack Torrance is no way to do it. Yet, this noisy breakfast scene does seem a nod to the Jack-and-Wendy-at-the-typewriter dynamic. It's one of a myriad of Kubrick homages woven into the film—this is a P.T.A. joint, after all. When Alma and Reynolds bomb around the countryside in his automobile, Anderson straps the camera to the hood, using a fisheye lens like in A Clockwork Orange. Another nod to not-my-favorite Kubrick picture comes when a frenzied Reynolds, during a show at the House, becomes disheveled, stealing a secret look at Alma through a peephole, wild-eyeballed, as she displays one of his new gowns. (Costume designer Mark Bridges created the movie's gorgeous dresses.) 

When another bout of paralyzing gloominess arrives, Reynolds becomes tender, open, splayed out in bed, and Alma has to drive, both literally and metaphorically. She takes a decisive, secret action to force him to slow down. 

Reynolds feels he's cursed never to love. Transpose a couple of the words in that last sentence, and you have one of the secret messages Reynolds sews into the lining of his garments. (It interests me that there's more business about Reynolds' "curse" in the trailer than in the finished film.) Will love curdle to hatred? The bloom of the rose goes off their marriage quickly, and things seem headed for disaster when the old fuddy-duddy won't even go out dancing with Alma on New Year's Eve. This leads to a scene at the ball that receives a touching callback, and reveal, in the film's coda. 

The distinctive cinematography is by Anderson himself, uncredited, working in collaboration with gaffer Michael Bauman and camera/steadicam operator Colin Anderson. They use lenses as precisely, and pointedly, as anyone since Kubrick himself in Barry Lyndon, a film recalled in a beautiful candlelit Christmas dinner scene. They've pursued a kind of funky beauty, intentionally going for a flat, fluorescent vision of the workshop. I do hope you live near a theater that's showing this picture in 70mm, such as we're lucky to have in Chicago with the Music Box. Seeing it on 70, you'll experience the textures the filmmakers have worked so hard to produce, meticulously experimenting with film stocks, lenses and lighting. I could see the blush on Alma's face; I could feel the lush purple fabric. At its best, this picture attains the wistful, sumptuous grandeur of a Luchino Visconti, or of Anderson's hero, Max Ophuls. 

My mind also wants to associate the picture with Henry James and even Virginia Woolf—haunted, as Reynolds and the picture are, by his dead mother's ghost. "Always carry your mother with you," he tells Alma, letting her know he's secretly sewn a lock of her hair into the lining of his coat, above his heart. On his mantle he keeps a rather eerie, inscrutable photograph of his unsmiling young mother in her wedding dress; he tells Cyril that he can feel their mama reaching out to him—and that it's comforting to think the dead watch over the living.  

I walked out ravished by Jonny Greenwood's delirious score, a true co-star of the film. Anderson wallpapers the film in it, and it's the right choice—this music makes you feel intoxicated. If, after all these years, there remains something clinical and distant about Anderson's art—an effect heightened in a story about cold Brits (and warm-blooded Alma)—then for the first time, Greenwood's score gives an Anderson picture true warmth. As much as the tremendous acting, it's Greenwood's music that takes us below the surface, lighting up these characters' inner lives. At moments, the music positively swoons, as if the heavens themselves rejoice to witness the strange, glorious redemption.   

For his grand finale in precision character-sculpture, Day-Lewis has found, in Reynolds, a role that allows him to range from stern patriarch to happy, helpless baby. He seems to have had a lot of fun doing it. (He's got a witty, literate Anderson script to work with.) It's all in his bowtie, I think. Day-Lewis always finds just the right touch to bring a character to life and, in a movie resplendent with telling details, Reynolds' bowtie tops it all off. As Reynolds, Day-Lewis doesn't just sit in a chair. He juts out a leg, greeting a countess festooned in one of his creations with a flourish, a bow, so that her entrance is an occasion. Slinging a Woodcock dress rescued from a slovenly dipsomaniac unfit to wear it (unforgettably characterized by Harriet Sansom Harris) over his shoulder, he twirls dramatically, elevating a sidewalk kiss into a grand romantic gesture. He's a serious man, gritting his jaw or glowering from beneath his eyebrows, but when he's in a flirty, playful mood he can be shy—his self-effacing smile is almost cute. Sometimes, when he's needy, a lock of his swept-back hair will dangle rakishly. Intense Method acting was the tradition that first fascinated me about screen acting, and Day-Lewis will go down in the history of screen electricity with his heroes Laughton, Brando, Clift and De Niro. He goes out on a note of great, kinky romance.

Relationships are strange things. How to rekindle love and creativity, down the years? Poised between instinct and deliberation, balancing on the fine line between destruction and creation, Anderson posits Alma's decisive action as a metaphor for the skill of figuring out how to live. Controlled risk—a bit of crazy, administered carefully. If you get it right, you'll find the hunger always comes back. In life, you might say, it's all just a matter of everything in the right dose.

(2017, 130 min, 70mm) Check the Music Box Theatre's website for showtimes.

Rating: ****1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Saturday
Dec232017

Top 10 2017

What a traumatic, terrifying year! In that respect, perhaps the year's most emblematic film was Charlottesville: Race and Terror – VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Instead, I've chosen to remember 10 films that support and affirm the life force.

Karolyn and I traveled around America a lot in 2017, mostly up and down the Mississippi River. We explored the Delta, as well as New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Hannibal, and Davenport. I can't say we saw much Donald Trump-style hate. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Everywhere you look, even in the darkest times, there are signs of life, sparks of hope.

1. Faces Places At age 88 at the time this film was made, Agnes Varda's body may be winding down, but her curiosity about other people remains undimmed. Of this "buddy/road trip comedy," which she made with street artist JR, 33, I wrote, "I love this sportive, altogether magical film—it's light and simple and funny, and all the more profound for it." What's it about? History and memory. The power of imagination. Lost loves. Creativity and travel and solidarity. In other words, those things most fragile, and most precious. Read more.

2. Columbus Years ago, the wise film critic James Monaco wrote, "Ideas and character, people and intelligence, are the life of any good movie." No film embodied that notion better this year than Kogonada's debut feature. Read more.

3. The Other Side of Hope The mise en scène itself is droll in Aki Kaurismaki's ultra-dry Finnish comedy. It centers around a taciturn and tough, but goodhearted, restaurateur (Sakari Kuosmanen) and a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Finland (the exquisitely deadpan Sherwan Haji). Reviewing it when it played at the Chicago International Film Festival, I found it "a wonderfully wry treatment of a cruel, sad reality" and said that "the two cagey leads are my favorite movie characters in a good long while." Make that of the year. Read more

4. The Son of Joseph Anything with Mathieu Amalric stands a good chance of making any list of mine. When I think of this film, I want to use the word "refreshing." That's partly because of its theme of renewal, but also because I covered it in the Spring. (That's when it played at the Gene Siskel Center's European Union Film Festival, one of my favorites of the Chicago year.) In my writeup, I said "writer/director Eugène Green's stylized, deadpan satire, turns out to be a non-ironic Christian allegory about love and resistance. While it's rather unclassifiable, I laughed much harder here than at many so-called comedies." Read more.

5. I Am Not Your Negro Back in February, I wrote, "When [James] Baldwin speaks of the 'death of the heart,' of our privileged apathy, of an infantile America, an unthinking and cruel place, he could be speaking of the Trump era. He feared for the future of a country increasingly unable to distinguish between illusion, dream, and reality. 'Neither of us, truly, can live without the other,' he wrote. 'For, I have seen the devil...[I]t is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself.' Let this movie inspire today's young dissenters, and let James Baldwin be our model of oppositional, critical thinking as we raise our angry voices against Donald Trump and everything he stands for." That still feels right. Read more

6. Twin Peaks: The Return Think of it as a TV movie or, per Violet Lucca, as being of a piece with the rest of his paintings, sculptures and "cross-media output." David Lynch's 18-hour work was laugh-out-loud funny and it was also, for great stretches, a beautiful experimental film. The "moving image work" that played most with the medium in 2017 was on TV! Lynch both subverted and gratified my generation's nostalgia, and played with the passage of 25 years in ways both poignant and unsettling. The opening credits showed the Snoqualmie Falls from a new angle, and the show went from there, making the familiar truly strange once again. There were so many moments I cherish, from Michael Cera's Wally Brando to Harry Dean Stanton crooning "Red River Valley." On a personal note: back in '90 or '91, I conducted a telephone interview with Duwayne Dunham, The Return's editor, for class. The assignment was to interview someone doing something we'd like to do in life. I couldn't get Lynch, my first choice, but Dunham'd directed a few episodes of the then-contemporary Twin Peaks and graciously agreed to talk to meKudos to my old friend on putting together The Return, a major accomplishment!

7. Mudbound The life force runs through it. One of the finest ensemble casts of the year. This movie is so tactile it practically manifests the epigraph of the Hillary Jordan novel it adapts, from James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in which Agee despairs of the capacity of writing to render the immediacy of the sensory experience he wishes to convey. Instead, he says, he would give us photographs, then "fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement...A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point." Read more. 

8. Phantom Thread Speaking of playing with the medium: Paul Thomas Anderson's perverse, enchanted film did that at nearly every beat, all the while working within tradition—in his words, the Gothic romance with suspense, à la Rebecca. The movies features perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis's last word on screen acting, as a fastidious, elite dressmaker to royals and stars in '50s London. The world of couture is perhaps Anderson's most feminine milieu ever, although my father takes W Magazine, so who's to say? Phantom Thread is about the comic, sinister undercurrents of power dynamics in relationships, and the dark British sarcasm is, in its way, as witheringly funny as the violence of There Will Be Blood. Here the dressmaker's boxing partners are his lover (Vicky Krieps), an outsider because of her youth, nationality and class, and his icy sister and business partner (Lesley Manville), both stellar. It's their common ruthlessness that somehow unites these people. As usual, Anderson includes very strange shifts of tone and psychology, fascinatingly odd elisions. I can't decide if the metaphors at play here are profoundly deep, or if they stop at surfaces. Either way, what surfaces! At its best, this picture achieves the wistful, sumptuous grandeur of a Visconti, and his finale role allows Day-Lewis to range from stern patriarch to happy little baby.

9. The Square A riotous study of absurdity, it seemed to resound with the themes of the year in ways large and small. Read more.

10. The Trip to Spain Another delightful entry in a series that's become one of the real pleasures of my filmgoing life. Come for the dueling impressions; stay for the poignancy of our middle-aged men of La Mancha, tilting away against the beat of the clock. Read more.

Friday
Dec152017

FÉLICITÉ (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

This week at CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote about Alain Gomis's FÉLICITÉ, a transcendent affirmation of the life force. It's playing this week at Facets Cinémathèque. Do consider checking it out.

Friday
Dec082017

FLESH AND BLOOD (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

Over at CINE-FILE Chicago, under "Crucial Viewing," I wrote about Mark Webber's rarely personal, intense FLESH AND BLOOD. Do consider going to see it this week at Facets Cinémathèque.

Wednesday
Nov222017

MUDBOUND (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

This week at CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote about Dee Rees's MUDBOUND. (My writeup's under the "Also Recommended" section.) See it on a big screen, if you can!