Opening in Las Vegas, January 19, 2018

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Here in Vegas we’re getting a mixture of Oscar bait and the usual January flotsam and jetsam, which are actually well-reviewed.

I’ve already seen Phantom Thread (90) and loved it except for the ending. It’s on the bubble for a Best Picture nomination, but surely Daniel Day-Lewis and costume designer Mark Bridges will get noms. Though it’s not perfect, any film by P.T. Anderson is worthy of seeing.

Also a Best Picture contender is Call Me By Your Name (93), a gay-themed drama that has earned fabulous reviews and a string of precursor nominations for its star, Timothy Chalamet. It’s kind of amazing to think that inside of fifty years, from Boys in the Band to now, that gay themes in cinema have totally been accepted. Brokeback Mountain was a hit, and Moonlight won Best Picture last year. Some progress can’t be stopped, no matter how hard some people try.

Now for the January releases, of course there is a Nicolas Cage movie. He’s in Mom and Dad (63), which is getting higher reviews than most Cage movies of the last decade. It’s about parents turning on their children and killing them.

A 9/11 drama, 12 Strong (55) is about a special forces mission immediately after the attack. One great selling point is that it stars Michael Shannon, one of our most interesting actors.

Den of Thieves (56) looks like a cut-rate Heat, but for those who like crime movies this will probably scratch the itch. Especially looks ideal for home-viewing.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (75) is not from Studio Ghibli but certainly looks like it. Getting very good reviews, so for those who savor animation looks like something to check out.

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Films that opened in America, December 22-25 2017

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Jumanji: Welcome To the Jungle (7.2 IMDB, 76% Rotten Tomatoes) – Probably the surprise breakout hit of the American holiday period, it’s probably going to end up being one of the top 5 most popular films of 2017. What odds a few months ago this would easily outdo ‘Justice League’?

The reviews have been surprisingly good considering it’s directed by Jake Kasdan who’s made some ordinary films in the past. If nothing else, the hit that The Rock took from the Baywatch misfire has proved only temporary.

Pitch Perfect 2 (6.3, 31%) – This finale of the trio of films has done far less well than PP2 did and perhaps that’s because the general reaction to the first sequel was one of disappointment and the box office impact came one film later.

The Greatest Showman (8, 53%) – This PT Barnum biopic has had lukewarm critical responses (and was found underwhelming by our own Jackrabbit Slim) but the IMDB score and strong box office globally suggest an underutilised section of the audience has taken by what appears to be quite an old fashioned film.

Downsizing (5.8, 51%)I reviewed this Alexander Payne film favourably last year but judging by the critical and audience response, I’m one of the few to have taken something positive out of it. Actually, judging by the box office performance (only $7m outside America!) I’m one of the few outside America who’s actually seen it at all. I suspect it’s reputation will grow over the years though.

Father Figures (4.9, 26%) – This Owen Wilson/Ed Helms comedy has been a disaster in all aspects, and judging by the trailer it’s not hard to see why; full of that cringey, crude ‘humour’ that seems to make up 95% of mainstream Hollywood comedies these days. Bit sad seeing Glenn Close in this.

The Post (7.5, 88%) – Spielberg’s decision to make the children’s film ‘The BFG’ was a curious one as it seemed to be an attempt to recapture his glory days of when he was the king of the quality mainstream family film. Especially curious as he’s developed a fine reputation in recent decades of real-life major historical events. His name probably more than any other helps ensure box office viability to films like this tale of the Watergate saga from the publisher’s point of view instead of being on Netflix and HBO and it did very well on its first full weekend of wide release (Jackrabbit Slim’s review is here).

Tiger Zinda Hai (6.7, 57%) – Hindi action film; did very well relatively speaking in its opening US weekend of release, especially as it’s 165 minutes long!

Along With The Gods: The Two Worlds (7.8, 50%) – South Korean fantasy drama

Hostiles (7.2, 74%) – Despite good reviews and the likes of Christian Bale & Rosamund Pike in it, this Western has made little impact at the box office, just showing how hard it is for that genre to succeed these days

Happy End (6.9, 67%) – A Michael Haneke film starring Isabelle Huppert usually would be expected to one of the film events of the year, but the RT score illustrates how many critics were disappointed by the film and felt Haneke was treading familiar territory

The Lucky Man (7.2) – American drama about a preacher who scams people with his fake mystical powers only to find he really has the gift.

Review: Molly’s Game

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If you knew nothing about Molly’s Game going in but knew the work of Aaron Sorkin, you’d put two and two together pretty soon and realize it had his fingerprints all over it. That’s mostly a good thing–nobody writes dialogue like Sorkin, he must be paid by the word–though he can edge into sanctimony. Molly’s Game is mostly free of that–no President Bartlet monologues outlining the progressive viewpoint–and has some terrific acting.

Jessica Chastain, one of our best actors right now, stars as Molly Bloom. For about the first five to ten minutes of the movie, or so it seemed, she contributes voiceover on who she is, a former skiing champion who is injured badly in a fall, who endured an overbearing father (Kevin Costner), and ended up rich running poker games. Some screenwriting books will tell you not to use voiceover, but Sorkin either did not read or ignored those books.

Molly’s Game is Sorkin’s directorial debut, and he has the same flair for that as he does for writing. This is a very busy film, requiring some deal of attention (there is no real spot to go to the bathroom, and it’s a long movie), with all sorts of graphics showing poker hands and how a skier prepares. It’s sometimes dizzyingly brilliant, if not tiring.

Chastain’s Molly (who is a real person) gets a job with an obnoxious realtor (Jeremy Strong) who has a weekly poker game with high rollers (one of them is only known as Player X, played by Michael Cera, who is supposed to a composite of movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Toby Maguire. Which one said, “I like to destroy people?” Maguire, right?). Chastain is smart, smarter than most of them, and ends up stealing the players for her own game. It’s all perfectly legal, as she takes no cut of the winnings, only buy-ins and tips. But she gets arrested anyway, and hires Idris Elba as her lawyer, who accepts the case reluctantly.

Sorkin must really love depositions (The Social Network had two) as there is one here, plus a lot of other legalese. But at its heart Molly’s Game is the story of a woman with daddy issues. A scene late in the film, when she and Costner have it out on a park bench, is sharply written and tremendously acted. I kind of like what Costner has done with his career–he’s taking roles that befit his age (62) and are not necessarily the lead. When he pops in one (I had no idea he was in this) he’s a pleasure to watch. Other aging stars could follow his example.

But this is Chastain’s show. She is both regal and vulnerable, a woman in the world of rich and powerful men who is ready to break. It’s a crowded field for Oscar contenders this year; it will be interesting to see if Chastain can nudge her way in.

HAGEBOC 2017 FINALE: JAMES WINS!!!

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Despite forgetting to put in my guesses this week, I narrowly claim victory of HAGEBOC 2017!

FINAL SCORES:

James +50
Slim +47
Rob +37
Juan +24
Marco +19
Filmman +12

Thanks for playing!  We’ll kick off AGEBOC X (whoa!) on May 1st just in time for that weekend’s release of Avengers: Infinity War.

 

Review: I, Tonya

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I, Tonya gets a thumbs-up from me for basically two reasons: Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. There are also some laughs based on other characters’ stupidity, which are pretty easy to get, but Robbie shakes the role of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding like a dog with a bone. It’s a bravura performance, and may get her an Oscar.

Also an Oscar contender is Allison Janney as her mother, the stage mother from hell. There have been a lot of scary mothers in film history, from Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate to Piper Laurie in Carrie, and Janney joins the list of the best/worst.

However, I have reservations about the film, mostly about the haphazard direction by Craig Gillespie. I took a look at his filmography and there’s nothing there to suggest he could handle the complicated script by Steven Rogers (Lars and the Real Girl is his most well-known film). I, Tonya is a black comedy, reminiscent of meta-films like The Big Short and Thank You For Smoking, with characters breaking the fourth wall, and Gillespie can’t manage to make the tone consistent. At times I felt the film wearying.

For those too young, Harding was one of America’s best figure skaters but she didn’t fit the classic mold of the figure skater–the princess on ice. She was unapologetically an athlete–of course all skaters are athletes but they hide it under frills and bangles–and came from the wrong side of the tracks, whereas most skaters come from affluent families. She smoked, swore, and was a rebel, skating to music that wasn’t classical.

She married Jeff Gillooly (who rightly says in the film that for a while he became a verb), who according to Harding beat her regularly (he denies it). But the epicenter of the idiocy surrounding Harding is Gillooly’s friend, Shawn Eckhardt, a loser who assumes the role of her bodyguard and dreams up the idea to sabotage her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, by having a stooge kneecap her.

That was just about the biggest, most bizarre story of 1994, and the screenplay handles it amusingly and effectively. Despite the nefariousness it is unavoidably funny, as Eckhardt, played by newcomer Paul Walter Hauser, is a classic character–fat, stupid, and delusional (he tells a newswoman that he is an international terrorism consultant, which she points out isn’t true). Harding, according to this film, did not know what was going to happen (she assumed they were going to send death threats to Kerrigan) and the script and Robbie play her as mostly a victim, although one who never takes responsibility for the mistakes she does make.

The relationship between Robbie and Janney is chilling. Harding’s mother had five children, Harding belonging to husband number four. When he leaves a young Harding screams “Don’t leave me!” meaning don’t leave me with her. Janney is cold and cruel, and says her sacrifice has been to make Harding hate her to make her a champion. She’s a psychologist’s dream patient.

Also good are Sebastian Stan as Gillooly and Bobby Canavale as a Hard Copy reporter, who rightly points out that Hard Copy was once put down by the hard news organizations who now do exactly what they did.

In the hands of a more competent director I, Tonya could have been a classic rather than an okay movie. One thing Gillespie does that I hate is use pop songs as transitions: scene, pop song introduces next scene, repeat. Also, given that the bulk of the movie takes place in the 1990s, it’s odd that the soundtrack is mostly from the ’70s.

I recommend I, Tonya for the performances and the amazing story (did I mention that after the Kerrigan incident Harding did go to the Olympics, but had to restart her program because her laces broke?).

Review: The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water is a beautiful love story, but unlike any you’ve likely seen. We’ve had many films about humans falling in love with aliens or robots, but this is about a woman falling in love with a hybrid of a man and an amphibian. I can’t imagine what the children would look like.

The first film you’ll think of while watching this is The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Director Guillermo Del Toro was originally pitching a remake of that film, but from the creature’s point of view. That didn’t fly, so he made what is kind of a sequel to it, taking the story beyond his capture.

It’s set during the Cold War. Sally Hawkins plays a mute woman (scars on her neck indicate she was mauled as an infant) who works as a cleaning lady in a government laboratory. One day a hush-hush project comes in: it’s the “asset,” caught in the Amazon by Michael Shannon. The creature’s breathing abilities could be useful for study for the space program. The Russians want it. Hawkins, realizing he’s an outsider like she is, and doesn’t know she’s “incomplete,” falls in love.

The Shape of Water is like a fairy-tale. Richard Jenkins, who plays Hawkins’ lonely neighbor (he’s a closeted gay man) narrates, and all that is missing is a “once upon a time.” Shannon is the villain, but he’s not entirely cardboard–his motivation is that he never fails, and when Hawkins, helped by Jenkins, her co-worker Octavia Spencer, and a scientist who doesn’t want to see the creature killed (Michael Stuhlbarg) rescue him from the clutches of the government, Shannon is a man on a mission.

I liked this film very much but I have a few misgivings. One, is that they would let cleaning women see this big secret so readily. Two, when Hawkins and gill-man (they should have named him) climb into the bathtub together, I felt a cringe, as this was too close to bestiality to me. Yes, Del Toro goes there. And some of the plot mechanisms are a bit creaky–especially concerning a note Hawkins writes on her calendar.

It all looks sensational, from the lab to a diner to a movie palace (Hawkins and Jenkins live over a movie theater, wouldn’t you know). Jenkins is a big fan of old musicals, which he and Hawkins watch together on TV. This leads to Del Toro’s most audacious scene, with Hawkins and the creature dancing together in a black and white musical. What could have been a laughable scene comes off as very poignant. Del Toro, like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, are encyclopedias of film, and often use old references in their movies. I think this is only movie that references Alice Faye and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The acting is top notch. I hope and expect Hawkins and Jenkins to get Oscar nominations. Shannon deserves one, too. This is very much like the treasury agent role he plays on Boardwalk Empire, but with different shadings. Doug Jones, who has often played creatures in Del Toro’s films, is the creature. Stuhlbarg, who seems to be in everything, is very effective. When he first came on the scene in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man I thought it was a one-and-done kind of thing, but he has a very good chance of appearing in three of the Best Picture nominees this year, with The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name, and The Post. You have to give him credit for picking good projects.

 

Review: Downsizing

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Downsizing

(Warning: contains spoilers)

Alexander Payne has probably been my favourite film director over the past couple of decades; I don’t think anyone has come to close to being as precise and sharp in analysing modern-day Western society and the socio-economic forces that drive people and their relationships to each other and society itself.

Therefore, even though the film got lukewarm reviews, was a box office flop and the TV ad I saw for it looked awful, I decided to go and see ‘Downsizing’.

The film opens with the world-changing advance of people being shrunk to 10-15 cm height. Years later, it has gone mainstream with millions of people choosing to be shrunk and live in tiny communities where because of their increased wealth (diamond jewellery costs only a few dollars) they can live in luxury. A struggling lower middle-class couple Paul & Audrey (Matt Damon & Kristen Wiig) decide to go for it in a community called ‘Leisureland’ in the hope it will leave their financial troubles behind for a comfortable life. But while Paul goes through the treatment successfully, a shock development totally dismantles his future plans and leads him onto a completely different life path.

Instead of his usual present-day social-realist takes of struggling urbanites, Payne has branched out into science-fiction. It’s admirable that he’s taken a risk into new territory but unfortunately, he isn’t at ease with it. Probably the film’s biggest failing (no pun intended) is that it doesn’t convey its concept of small people co-existing with standard-sized people convincingly.

We see multiple scenes early on of small people appearing at science presentations, standard-sized people’s houses or at school reunions but surely this would be extremely dangerous with the potential of insects, pets, spilled food, hostile standard-sized adults to kill them. Perhaps it was because I have the memory of the spider fight from ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ but I just didn’t buy the way it’s conveyed at all.

Perhaps more significantly, the social analysis (usually a great Payne strength) of this radical social setup is disappointingly lacking. There’s one interesting scene where a drunk standard-sized man unleashes his resentments about small people but otherwise it’s a fairly mundane procedural of how the process works.

This covers the first 40 minutes or so and it is largely uninspiring. But once the major plot development that Audrey pulls out of being shrunk and Paul is left alone in the small community, the film goes off in many directions and becomes a lot more interesting.

The arrival of Paul’s neighbour, the hedonistic Dusan (Christoph Waltz) gives the film a badly needed jolt of life. Marvellously played by Waltz, he’s both a repulsive and endearing character; someone who is both selfish and a generous friend. Even when he’s not the centre of attention he’s a character you always keep your eye on; I loved his reaction late in the film when Paul appears after a romantic encounter.

Initially, Paul’s solo existence seems one of pointlessness and dissatisfaction which even drug experiences can’t cover up. But a chance meeting with a Vietnamese refugee Ngoc (Hong Chau) changes his life as he sees the less prosperous parts of ‘Leisureland’ and eventually goes on a trip to the original small people village in Norway where he’s confronted with a major life-defining choice.

While ‘Downsizing’ gets more interesting as it goes along and it has great empathy for its array of characters and is full of ambitious concepts and ideas, it never quite totally succeeds. Considering the path the film goes down in the final two-thirds, one wonders why the sci-fi elements had to be in it at all. And the final choice Paul makes is a bit of a weak cop-out.

Still, while this is far from Payne’s best work it’s enhanced my respect for him as a filmmaker who’s prepared to try new concepts and ideas instead of treading water with familiar material (as I think he did with ‘The Descendants’).

‘Downsizing’ is a flawed work, but worth watching.

Fifty Years Ago: They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!

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Fifty years ago. 1967. The year of the Summer of Love, the first Super Bowl, and the arrivals of Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, and Judd Apatow. In the movie world, it was something of a tipping point between old Hollywood and the new wave of American directors, and a film critic, Bosley Crowther, was pushed out of his job at the New York Times because of panning Bonnie and Clyde.

The five nominees for Best Picture were about as diverse as any that has ever been. You can read all about them in Mark Harris’ wonderful book Pictures at a Revolution. But here’s my take on the five films. I have seen all of them before, one of them over twenty times and another for the first time since I was six.

In alphabetical order, we start with Bonnie and Clyde. Directed by Arthur Penn, it was really Warren Beatty’s baby, and it changed the nature of film. The old guard, including Crowther, didn’t get it, this uncomfortable mixture of comedy and violence. But it would influence the film of the ’70s in the way no other film did. The project had been kicking around for years, and was at one time to be directed by Francois Truffaut, and then Jean-Luc Godard, who wanted to film it New Jersey in the winter. When told the weather would not be favorable to them, he said, “I’m talking about cinema, and you’re talking about meteorology!”

 

One of the worst films ever nominated for Best Picture. Doctor Dolittle was a critical and commercial flop. But Fox had no films to campaign for, so this was it. It is a bloated, boring musical based on the novels of Hugh Lofting, which are much better. The film had problems from the get-go, when Alan Lerner was fired because he took years to write a score. Rex Harrison was a nightmare on set. I was okay it when I was a child and don’t remember hating it–I sat through it’s 150 minutes; maybe I was interested in the animals. It did have the Oscar-winning Best Song, “Talk to the Animals.”

 

My choice for Best Picture would have been The Graduate, but then it’s one of my five favorite films of all time. I’ve seen it at least twenty times and could watch it right now. Mike Nichols made a film that captured the alienation of the young, made Dustin Hoffman a star, and used Simon and Garfunkel’s music (Mrs. Robinson was not nominated for an Oscar because the paperwork to have it considered was not turned in). It’s very quotable–“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me,” and “Plastics” are embedded in pop culture. Many older people hated it, but it was a huge hit, with lines around the block. Nichols won Best Director, but it was probably too modern for Academy members to honor it for Best Picture.

 

Old Hollywood was represented by Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which though centering on a hot topic, interracial marriage, was as square as Father Knows Best. Director Stanley Kramer teamed Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who were stars forty years earlier, to play the white couple who could ease us into the world of mixed marriages. Sidney Poitier had to play a black man with no faults, making any opposition to the marriage to be about race and only race. The movie is probably best known for Tracy’s speech at the end, which states that it doesn’t matter the color of skin, it matters about the couple feel. Five weeks after filming ended, Tracy died. But it was Hepburn who got the Oscar, her second, half of her final total.

The winner of Best Picture was In the Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison and also starring Sidney Poitier, this time as a fish out of water–a Philadelphia police detective stuck in small town in Mississippi to solve a murder, with the unlikely aid of white bigoted sheriff, Rod Steiger. The movie was far more edgy than Guess, but still remained in the realm of the mainstream, using the murder mystery template. There were no black fists raised or mentions of Huey Newton, but the film did present a black man in a white man’s world and he is not submissive. A scene in which Poitier struck a white man sent shock waves through the country, and Poitier’s indignance at being asked by Steiger, “What do they call you up there in Philadelphia?” has him reply, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” with the emphasis on “Mr.” Steiger won Best Actor.

 

Review: Darkest Hour

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In an odd coincidence, there were two movies about Dunkirk this year. The one with the place as a title was an up close look at the battle. Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright, is at the other end of the conflict, the politicians bickering. It would make an interesting double feature. For what it’s worth, this is the second time Wright has featured Dunkirk in one of his movies, the other being Atonement.

But this film is all about Winston Churchill. One of the most important figures of the 20th century, Darkest Hour covers one month in his life, May 1940. The Germans have conquered Poland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. The entire British Army has their backs against the English Channel, surrounded by Germans. They do not have sufficient air power.

Prime Minister Neville “Peace in our time” Chamberlain resigns, as he is thought to be too weak to be a war-time leader. Lord Halifax turns the job down, a decision that certainly changed world history. The compromise candidate is Churchill, though many think he lacks sound judgment (the disaster at Gallipoli during World War I is mentioned frequently), and that he drinks too much. In fact, he may have been a high-functioning alcoholic.

But he was brilliant, and he was pugnacious. The film centers on Churchill’s desire to fight back, while Halifax and Chamberlain want to negotiate with Hitler, with Mussolini as a mediator. Churchill says, “You can’t negotiate with a tiger while your head is in its mouth.” The king, (Ben Mendelsohn, a less dashing but perhaps more accurate George VI than Colin Firth) doesn’t care for him. Only days after becoming Prime Minister some are maneuvering to have him removed. But he won’t back down, and his oratory is his best weapon.

Darkest Hour is a lot of talk, and some heavy English accents (I could have used subtitles). And it’s a love letter to Churchill, making his flaws endearing and showing him to be completely right, of course in retrospective. There are many conferences and arguments in the corridors of Parliament with barbed comments thrown about, which is always fun. I loved the scene in which Churchill, hiding in the W.C., calls Franklin Roosevelt for help, but FDR can’t help him because of neutrality acts. He can’t even send him the planes that England has already bought (“But we bought them with the money you loaned us!” Churchill complains).

I liked Darkest Hour okay mainly because of Gary Oldman as Churchill (the likely Oscar winner). He isn’t the first person to come to mind to play the roly-poly man, who admits that all babies look like him. Oldman wears a considerable amount of makeup, but he is magnificent in capturing the complexity of the man, particularly during the famous speeches: “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” and “We will fight them on the beaches…”

The rest of the cast is good, although Kristin Scott Thomas doesn’t have much to do as Lady Churchill, except hector Winston about his lavish lifestyle and being mean to his secretary (played by Lily James).

What is disappointing about the film is that it creates a scene near the end that did not happen, and seems more like one of Churchill’s fantasies that reality. It tries to show Churchill as a man of the people, and I’m not sure he counted that as one of his finer qualities.

 

HAGEBOC 2017 – WEEK NINE

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Scores as of 12/30/17
James +50
Slim +40
Rob +34
Juan +24
Marco +14
Filmman +12

HAGEBOC WEEKEND OF JANUARY 5TH, 2018

  1. What will Insidious: The Last Key earn this weekend?
  2. What will Molly’s Game earn this weekend?
  3. Will Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle out earn Star Wars: The Last Jedithis weekend?
  4. (1 point for the correct answer)

    Answers are due on FRIDAY January 5th by 11:59 am EST. Good luck!

Review: Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread is about a lot of things: the eccentricities of genius, how to live with a genius, and how relationships can get very twisted. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s original script, we get a glimpse of darkness that I’m not sure many people can stomach. For me, a very good movie had a very disturbing ending that went to a place I wasn’t ready to go.

The story concerns Reynols Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), one of the top dress designers in the world. He works out of his home, with a bevy of seamstresses and his sister (Lesley Manville) basically running the business. He also has a series of muse/concubines, who provide him inspiration, companionship, and a little sex. The film opens with him finally tiring of one of these women, who demands his attention during breakfast (a very important meal for Woodcock–if his breakfast routine is ruined it can foul his whole day).

That girl is sent packing by Manville, who knows her brother’s quirks and works around them, without kowtowing to him (at one point she tells him he doesn’t want to get into a fight with her, because he will lose). But that very evening Woodcock goes into the country and finds his next muse as a waitress in a country inn.

Played by Vicki Krieps, she falls for him, even if he is brutally up front with her while using her as a model. “You have no breasts,” he tells her. But she is determined to finally be the one to capture him (he has never been married). I won’t go too deeply into the plot, but pay attention when Krieps and the cook are out gathering mushrooms.

Phantom Thread, despite its delicious decor, costumes, and English manners, reminds me of the great battling couples dramas, such as Strindberg’s Dance of Death, Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors, James Goldman’s Lion in Winter, or Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It even brought to mind Gone Girl, because all of these plays/movies involve basically unlikeable people who deserve each other.

Day-Lewis, in supposedly his last film, is perfect as Woodcock. Anderson could have made him any kind of artist, from chef to writer to painter, as the greatest of these usually have tics and routines that can’t be disrupted. As soon as Krieps is entered into the house, she starts to bother him with noises she makes at breakfast. As for her, she is a schemer, realizing that Woodcock is a mama’s boy (he carries a lock of his late mother’s hair, sewn into his coat). The actress, who has very little on her resume, is playing the protagonist of the piece, as she is the one driving the action. The conflict of the film is whether she can change Woodcock enough to snare him permanently.

Phantom Thread is not exactly quickly paced, but it is frequently funny. Woodcock, a gentleman to the core, unleashes some pretty foul language when provoked, no more than in a scene in which Krieps tries to cook a special dinner for him but prepares the asparagus the wrong way, much to Woodcock’s distress.

I should give a shout out to Mark Bridges, the costume designer, who has to do an excellent job in a film about haute couture, and he does. The film looks great overall, and is an anglophile’s dream.

I suspect Bridges will get an Oscar nomination, as will Day-Lewis, but the story just doesn’t add up for me. It’s as if Anderson wanted to make a film about this subject but didn’t know how to end it. Still worthwhile seeing, though, if only for Day-Lewis’ perfectly mannered performance.

Review: The Post

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When the lights came up on after The Post, my friend and I turned to each other to declare it was the best movie of the year. I still stand by that, but in the couple of days that I have gone by since then I realize that it is probably not as it happened–there are too many little moments, like monologues about the freedom the press–but it is damn good story telling. For all you can say about Steven Spielberg and there is some bad, he knows how to spin a good yarn.

The story is that of the Washington Post, in 1971, deciding whether or not to publish what became known as the Pentagon Papers. The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg stealing them out of the Rand Corporation, where he worked. The New York Times gets the first pages, not the whole thing, and publishes them. The attorney general’s office gets an injunction against them, citing they are national security.

Then the Post gets their hands on 4,000 pages of the stuff, enough to get their own seat in first class. Editor Ben Bradlee wants to publish them, the injunction be damned. His boss is Katharine Graham, the publisher, friends to some of those in power, and a woman in a man’s world. Will they publish?

The answer is known to most, but it’s pretty thrilling watching the back and forth, the arguments for and against. The reporters vs. the lawyers, with Graham in between. The spine of her character is that she is an accidental publisher: her father owned the paper, and when he died the job went to Graham’s husband, She says that was how it was then–there was no consideration that she would get the job, that just wasn’t a woman’s prerogative. She’s prone to listen her board (the head of which is fine performance by Tracy Letts), but she trusts Bradlee implicitly.

This has been said before, but Streep is wonderful. You can see her thoughts reflected on her face, her struggle against publishing material that will hurt her friends (notably former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was on the record as saying the U.S. couldn’t win the war back in 1965 but troops getting sent over anyway).

Tom Hanks plays Bradlee, and while he doesn’t feel as right as Jason Robards in the same part in All the President’s Men, he’s fine. He enjoys the game, stopping to tell a secretary, “This is fun.” In this film we see Bradlee’s home life. There’s an amusing scene in which his daughter cleans up selling lemonade while all the reporters are in his house.

The Post plays like a spy movie, with furtive phone calls and a literal spy, an intern sent to the Times to see if he can find out what they’ve got. There’s hardly a moment of let up–I don’t think I checked the time once.

The Post is strangely relevant, as we are again in a time of combative attitudes between the White House and the press. Actual Nixon tapes are used to hear his reaction, one of them funny in the context of today’s administration. We also get a little epilogue that sets All the President’s Men up as a sort of sequel.

Of course Spielberg is overly sentimental, especially with a speech by Streep at the end. It’s boilerplate, but it’s true, and it’s nice to hear it in the U.S. at this time.

Review: The Greatest Showman

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I’ve seen and will be seeing a lot of new films the next week or so, so I’ll be writing lots of reviews.

I’m visiting family for the holidays. The plan on Christmas Eve was to see a movie, and since we all went, from my mother down to my seven-year-old nephew,the choice was The Greatest Showman, the sanitized story of P.T. Barnum that is pretty lousy except for Hugh Jackman.

Barnum was a great showman, no doubt about it, but he was also an admitted fraud. The film touches on that, but explains it away by saying he’s just making people happy. The film ends with a card with a quote of him saying that the noblest thing you can do is make people happy. He may have said that, but according to Wikipedia, he also said that his main purpose was to fill his coffers.

Directed wanly by Michael Gracy, this version of Barnum’s life begins with him as a poor tailor’s son, falling in love with a customer’s daughter, who is rich. He grows up, and despite her father’s disapproval, marries the girl, who is now Michelle Williams. They have two daughters, and he comes up with an idea to open a “Museum of Curiosities.” His daughters tell him he needs living things, so he goes out and recruits freaks, such as a bearded lady, very fat man, very tall man, and a dwarf who is rechristened Tom Thumb.

He becomes a great success despite a critic telling his readers that it is a “humbug,” which Barnum turns into an advantage. He visits Queen Victoria, and ends up producing a tour of famed singer Jenny Lind.

Through all of this, the film maintains that all Barnum wants to do is make his family happen. The climax of the film, really, is that he leaves the circus behind for a night (his partner Zac Ephron takes over temporarily) to go see his daughters in a ballet recital. It’s like a Kodak commercial.

The Greatest Showman is a musical, with songs by Pasek and Paul, who also supplied the songs for La La Land. They didn’t seem to adjust though, as the songs for The Greatest Showman are far too contemporary. We’ve had films where the music was anachronistic, such as Moulin Rouge and Marie Antoinette, but the director isn’t making any kind of point here, the music just sounds wrong. And it’s not memorable.

In an effort to be socially conscious, the film adds a romance between Efron and Zendaya, who plays a black trapeze artist. They get plenty of stares, and Efron’s parents insult her to her face. I’m sure that New York City, where the film takes place, was more tolerant of black and white having somewhat equal contact, but I wonder if it would have really been possible for a white man to kiss a black woman in the mid-1840s, even in New York.

The only reason to see this film is if you’re interested in circuses, as there are a few truths in there somewhere, and for Jackman, who is an amazing performer, able to hold the screen if he’s doing song and dance or playing Wolverine. I’d like to see him in better musicals, more like Les Miserables. The Greatest Showman is a misfire.

Films that opened in America on December 15-17, 2017

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (7.7 IMDB, 92% Rotten Tomatoes)  – I haven’t had any interest in this series for a couple of decades (I’ve only ever watched the original trilogy) but how overwhelmingly it dominates pop culture fascinates me. Here in Australia we even have sporting events involved with Star Wars themed rounds so it feels like almost mandatory to go and see these movies.

As for this particular film itself, the most interesting thing is how the critical reaction has been much more positive than the general public reaction; already it’s IMDB score is lower than the previous two SW films and only marginally above the Revenge Of The Sith. I can’t say who’s in the right without having seen it but I suspect that some critics decided to give it a pass because it’s such a cultural phenomenon that people are going to see regardless that it’s just easier to give it a pass.

As for how long the series continue and be the biggest film of its year, I think things will become more difficult once the main stars from the original films are no longer regulars in it.

Ferdinand (6.8, 71%) – Animated film about a bull and various friends. Doesn’t seem to have done particularly well at the box office so far in relation to its budget which means Kate McKinnon’s almost flawless film career of appearing in misfires continues.

Youth (7.3) – Chinese drama

The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (5.9, 25%) – Chinese fantasy film with less than stellar reviews

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (7.5, 100%) – The second Spanish animated film to get a release in America this month; this one has gotten excellent reviews

Permanent (5.9, 50%) – American film about a family where the daughter wants to get a perm… yes it seems to be that thin a plot. Judging by the trailer it seems to fit pretty much all the clichés of an American independent film; despite the presence of Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette it doesn’t seem to have caught on with critics or the public.

The Ballad Of Lefty Brown (6.4, 76%) – A modern rarity of a film that used to dominate the industry a couple of generations back – an American western. Amongst the cast are a very old-looking Bill Pullman and Peter Fonda

Miss Kiet’s Children (7.8, 100%) – Dutch documentary about a teacher dealing with just-arrived refugee students