Monthly Archives: December 2017

All the Money In the World — 7/10

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017, Ridley Scott)

Having stepped away from the effects-heavy, baggage-laden franchise of ALIEN: COVENANT, Scott has loosened up considerably for his second film of 2017, the rip-roaring entertainment that is this (somewhat) true story of the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s teenage grandson in 1973. Back in THE COUNSELLOR mode, he has fashioned a vicious, perky piece of crackerjack storytelling that feels expensive and polished, despite the fact that a huge chunk of it was filmed last Thursday.

Although a few of the green screen shots of Christopher Plummer keyed over Arabian deserts and the like are a little messy, you’d still think Plummer was always the Getty at the center. He’s a snake: oily and poisonous, but convincing enough when he turns on the charm that you want to buy what he’s selling. And although he isn’t the protagonist of this story (more on Michelle Williams in a minute), it’s his view on money that drives everything that this movie is about. People like to think that money is just some extrinsic tool and doesn’t really mean much when it comes to human relationships, but Scott’s film (credited to screenwriter David Scarpa) says the opposite: everything is negotiable, especially human beings. Money isn’t just a way to keep score, it’s why we keep score in the first place — we can say we don’t want it, but it moves mountains.

This is a cynical world view, but the world it inhabits is that of unchecked capitalism, meaning the communist kidnappers depicted here never stand a chance. That’s the real tragedy this movie is exploring: even if you don’t agree with Getty that there’s no such thing as “priceless” (only “invaluable”), what are you going to do about it? All the power is in the hands of people who think like he does. And with the unequal distribution of wealth currently at a nearly unprecedented level, at least in the last century, that makes this movie not only a grim tale, but a timely one.

The beating heart here, as she often is, is Williams as the hostage’s mother. Not content to play Abigail as merely distraught and unhinged, Williams finds notes of tenderness, cunning, resolve, and even romance. The look she gives Getty’s fixer “Fletcher Chase” (what a name), played by Mark Wahlberg, when he states his intention to move on to another job, has the heartbreakingly perfect proportion of desperation, adoration, and politeness. So while Scott ended ALIEN: COVENANT on one of the most misanthropic notes of his career, for ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD he finds in Williams a face of such deep-seated humanity that even the frostiest grinch will melt by the end.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Phantom Thread — 8/10

PHANTOM THREAD (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

When Tarantino shot THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 70mm, some people groused that he shouldn’t be wasting that format on a movie that takes place almost entirely inside one cabin. Similarly, I can see that complaint lodged against Anderson for this interior two-hander that isn’t even composed in a widescreen aspect ratio. Anderson shot PHANTOM THREAD on 35mm and blew it up to 70 for some rare prints (I was lucky enough to see one of them in Los Angeles), and the result is a grainy, brightly lit, contrast-free period piece that feels like one of Day-Lewis’s 1980s movies such as THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING or A ROOM WITH A VIEW. But what you really get out of this textured look is a film where the details are everything. You feel every fabric on your fingers, you smell every cup of coffee, and you can hear the pop of a pin pricking through silk or wool. And form meets content, as it always does in the case of great art: the character of Reynolds Woodcock is a prick through the fabric of this story, piercing every scene and dragging his plot thread through it.

As magnetic a protagonist as he’s ever been, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Woodcock is not a likable person, but you can’t take your eyes off him. The actor has a superstar presence that storms onto screens every five years or so, then he disappears until you’ve almost forgotten just how explosive he is. And this performance stands up next to the likes of IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD as unimpeachable greatness. It takes quite a presence to fill the screen with him (even someone as terrific as DiCaprio almost got stomped trying to compete), and Luxembourgish newcomer Vicky Krieps can pretty much fit the bill. Although her performance doesn’t feel internalized (there’s a thinness revealing how “pretending” she is), it’s still assured and delightful, and you can *almost* see what the answer is when she asks herself “What am I doing here with you?” during one of Woodcock’s punishing rants. And don’t sleep on the third wheel in this story: Lesley Manville is fantastic as Cyril, Woodcock’s sister and right-hand woman, or as he calls her, his “old sew-and-sew.”

INHERENT VICE had plenty of comedic moments (think of Brolin eating that frozen banana) but PHANTOM THREAD is probably PTA’s funniest film since perhaps BOOGIE NIGHTS. There are a dozen laugh-out-loud jokes, and the best of them are barbed and mean. Take for example the brilliantly timed cut following the wedding vows to Alma once again loudly buttering her toast. Some of the sharp, efficient dialogue will make you laugh but much of the (dark) comedy is in just facial expressions, sound effects, and mannerisms. But the flipside of this is just how deeply disturbing the relationship is — both for how believable it is and how callous. Love is often about power dynamics, give-and-take, and forgiveness — and the poisonous bond that forms between Reynolds and Alma is one that, like a beautifully-tailored dress, covers up a misshapen, dying organism.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Post — 7/10

THE POST (2017, Steven Spielberg)

Should be required viewing for anyone who thought SPOTLIGHT was even remotely well-directed. They share a screenwriter (Josh Singer, bringing a heavy sledgehammer once again), but Spielberg puts an Armani suit on it, where McCarthy dressed it in Dockers. This is a huge, loud, gong-clanging siren-call for liberals to gather together, hold hands, and shout a massive “Fuck you” to Donald Trump, and I’ll be damned if I’m not signing up for that circle-jerk. Because it is very satisfying to feel that way, and Spielberg knows it, and he has fashioned (in the space of less than ten months from reading the script to green-lighting and releasing the finished film) a glorious work of pandering art, and few people know how to pander this elegantly.

This is a film where the freedom of the press is threatened by the “Nixon” administration, to which one journalist points out that the president “just took a shit on the First Amendment.” It takes place in 1971, you say? But what sells the message is what Spielberg brings to it. When the printing press fires up, he takes us upstairs to the newsroom, where a reporter reacts to the floor shaking from the activity. The presses running is both a figurative and literal earthquake, so we need to see it as one. It’s a beautiful — and wordless — moment.

Meryl Streep is having a blast as Kay Graham, channeling Hillary without too much bravado: merely the right hair, the right clothes, and a quiet knowledge that she’s smarter and braver than all the men in the room telling her what to think (and doubting that she knows). As her trusty editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, Tom Hanks has settled into the  charm of his 60s — an aging actor who doesn’t have to try, he just has to be wise. When one colleague snaps at him, Hanks does that move where he scratches his face with his middle finger as a subtle bird-flip, and it manages to be laugh-out-loud funny without calling attention to itself. (On the whole, the movie is funnier than you’d think; that’s one of its many pleasures).

Liz Hannah and Singer have delivered a somewhat sophomoric script that doesn’t give the characters much of a life beyond the true story it’s expositing (see something like ERIN BROCKOVICH for a much warmer and fleshed-out script with the same ambitions). All anyone talks about is the Pentagon Papers and whether we should publish the papers and where we got the papers and what’s going to happen if we publish the papers and what’s gonna happen if we don’t publish the papers and what it means to be a journalist and what it means to be a shareholder and what it mean to run a company. Doesn’t anyone also ask who won the Redskins game or how your kid is doing at college?

That said, Spielberg deftly smooths over the script’s single-minded focus with a handsome production where the camera is always in the right place. And his cast is a who’s-who of prestige TV (the stars of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Americans, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, The West Wing, and Fargo fill out most of the supporting roles), all managing to make goofy wigs and heavy period makeup feel like part of great theater. Formal chops make up for a lot of writing mediocrities, and so does a message that lands in the right place at the right time. It’s hard not to feel an innate, primal swell of emotion when good people prove that the evil thumb of conservative fear-mongering doesn’t have to stamp us all out, even if we know in the back of our minds that it’s simplified and a little bit of wishful thinking. We know Watergate took down Nixon. We don’t know, yet, if the teflon plate of mashed potatoes occupying the Oval Office has any chance of going away, even if any heroes do still exist behind a keyboard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — 7/10


Let me try to skip through the cultural baggage real quick: this is the most popular franchise of all time. Everyone has thoughts about it, it’s been going on for 40 years, and it isn’t that good. George Lucas was an excellent producer and a terrible director. It wasn’t a big part of my childhood (I only saw RETURN OF THE JEDI in theaters, and later PHANTOM MENACE). I’m not big on sci-fi/fantasy in general. There’s never been a great STAR WARS movie. My favorite of all these films is ROGUE ONE. THE LAST JEDI, however, is a close second.

This is a lot of movie. It’s maybe the second “biggest” movie I’ve ever seen, after AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (in terms of budget, size, length, ambition, scope, layers, plot, detail, and… stuff). Big is not necessarily Johnson’s strength — he’d never previously made a movie longer than two hours, and often contained them to locations like a high school or a farm house, even if they were outsized sci-fi mind-fucks. His episodes of BREAKING BAD were stream-lined (“Fly” takes place entirely in one room) and fiercely paced. He’s a genius. He’s the right director for STAR WARS. He has taken so much about this ridiculous universe and made it potent, funny, self-questioning, and invigorating. But it’s still in this universe, and the extent to which this episode is rather silly is the extent to which even as writer/director, Johnson couldn’t really get away from what’s at its core.

To wit, Luke and Leia. So, the original trilogy’s only good character (Han Solo) was killed off at the end of Episode VII, so Johnson is stuck forcing Abrams’s new characters (Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac) into situations with those two — and I just don’t care. Leia herself has become quite the leader after being a scared damsel in distress in Episode IV, but now she can levitate through space, unfreeze her body, and do all sorts of weird shit that makes no sense. For his part, Luke is still super annoying (he has two of the most insufferable “Well, actually…!” scenes of mansplaining in sci-fi history) and Johnson spends more time on his Irish sea-coast of a planet than he did at the LOOPER farm house. But who wants to deal with this tiny kid played by a bad actor (Hamill has slightly improved in the 40 years since Episode IV from awful to mediocre) grappling with the least interesting of several moral conundrums in this story?

Yet every time Johnson turns his eye to action, this thing lights up like nobody’s business, and becomes as armrest-clutchingly awesome as the franchise has ever seen. In the opening ten minutes a woman we’ve never met before has a terrific struggle with a remote control that’s as breathless a sequence as you’ll see this year. The depth in the frame every time something moves in space is like a slap in George Lucas’s face, rubbing in just how bad the previous films were with special effects and creative visualization. Then there’s a fight in the red throne room that has bad-ass weaponry and a hugely satisfying kill. I love how this looks, and when it hums, it sings.

But, once again, this is a lot of movie. It’s funny, if not emotionally involving. It’s two and a half hours long, and there’s father-son stuff (Kylo and Han, Luke and Vader, Rey and whoever-her-parents-are, etc.), stuff about the nature of war (“we’ll win not by killing what we hate, but by saving what we love”), and stuff about wrestling with inner turmoil over what you can choose to become. The best line from that part is when someone says that the burden of a master is that those he teaches will move beyond him. I think that’s Rian speaking to his part in a legacy of not just Star Wars movies, but cinema in general. Don’t hold on to the past as if it’s the best iteration just because of nostalgia. You learn from it. You improve it. You pass it on. And you see it become better. Now that’s food for thought: something smart and provocative, nuanced and complex? In a Star Wars movie? No wonder the hardcore fan boys don’t like this.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Lady Bird — 6/10

LADY BIRD (2017, Greta Gerwig)

If I had seen this movie in April or something, upon a quiet release, the tone of this review might be warmer. I’d still give it a 6, but I wouldn’t dwell on the negatives, which I’m warning you now I’m about to do. It’s just that the conversation around it now happens to be connected to award season, high critical consensus, and fawning praise over a debut people are heralding as some sort of masterwork. Thus, my reaction is to that, which naturally inspires a little heavy lean towards the critical in order to restore some sort of balance to a wildly overrated trifle.

At around 90 minutes, it feels like the first three episodes of a sitcom on Showtime — that isn’t any kind of evaluative judgment of the respective mediums of film and television; it’s just an observation that it might as well have begun episodes earlier or extended for more. The start and stop feel arbitrary despite the obvious character arc and final salutation of gratitude. But aesthetically, it also has the feel of something that’s more functional and less creative — far too many compositions are dull medium shots with flat lighting; the blocking and editing competent but never surprising or challenging. Gerwig’s script shares a DNA with the observant, whip-smart talent she brought to FRANCES HA, but let’s not start comparing her directing skills to Soderbergh or anything.

And at times the dialogue shows off in a way that betrays certain scenes and milieus. It’s funny that the driving instructor says “this isn’t really a thanking situation: you either pass or you fail,” but it also puts the pen ahead of the material, reminding us there’s more of an author here than there is a real world.

But the strength of this, and what ultimately makes everything about LADY BIRD triumph over its Sundance clichés and predictable story beats, is the cast. As the anchor, Ronan is razor-sharp and likable without ever asking for affection — she almost dares you to find her character grating but knows you never will. Metcalf is every bit her equal as the mother, reminding audiences that between this and her show-stopping episode of HORACE & PETE, she’s an actor far too underserved by Hollywood. Not to be outdone, Lucas Hedges continues to show how skilled he is at making every teenage boy he plays feel like someone you know rather than someone who has been written for you.

And then there’s Timothée Chalamet. I had no idea he’d be in this, and I’m about 72 hours fresh off seeing CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. If you got sick of me praising him in that, stop reading now. This kid is Tom Cruise. Cruise’s star wattage shone so bright in RISKY BUSINESS that you just knew he was the kind of movie star who only came around once a generation. I also assumed he’d be the last of his kind. But Chalamet is just that impressive — watch the way he says “that’s hella tight” in reaction to Ladybird telling him about the nun van prank. In three words you know everything he’s about (not to mention the kind of range Chalamet has, given that this kid is worlds removed from Elio). Gerwig may not be a great director yet, but you can’t be a great director unless you can allow for great acting, and with what she gets from so many people here, at least we know she has the potential.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Call Me By Your Name — 9/10

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017, Luca Guadagnino)

The characters speak three languages throughout, but for a good stretch of this movie, they don’t even need to say anything. Guadagnino’s intelligent, beautiful direction says everything. You can start with the shoes. When Oliver shows up, Elio walks around in loafers every day. Oliver wears high-top Converse. After a particularly close shot of Elio’s POV of those sneakers, we soon see Elio wearing his own high-top Chucks… and eventually it’s Oliver in loafers. Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.

The blocking and composition is also evocative and sensual — Guadagnino manages to fit several characters in a frame without cramming. One clever shot of Hammer and Stuhlbarg researching in the library also shows Chalamet in the mirror. Elio is always watching Oliver, and the camera — especially in the first act — rarely shows one without the other. Unless, that is, it drifts up into a tree to show some ripening fruit.

That fruit, by the way, is one of the few things Guadagnino lays on a little thick. There’s enough natural beauty in the North Italian countryside pictured here that he doesn’t need to go overboard with so many metaphors. Peaches being picked is one thing; peaches being violated is another. There’s also a few lines in Ivory’s script I wish had been excised. Guadagnino needs to trust his own brilliant direction and leave the clunky lines alone. That said, perhaps the film’s best scene is a tender father-son conversation that serves as a career highlight for the magnificently accomplished Stuhlbarg, outdoing himself here with a monologue that’s wise, heartfelt, earnest, probing, and never condescending. It’s hard to imagine not being deeply moved by it.

As great as Stuhlbarg is (and, conversely, as… adequate as Hammer is), the standout is Timothée Chalamet, who crashes into this thing like a blazing comet from outer space. It’s a breakthrough as show-stopping as DiCaprio in ROMEO + JULIET, Farrell in TIGERLAND, or Exarchopoulos in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR. He is 17 years old through and through, but he doesn’t play brooding or sullen. He’s passionate but reticent, smart but humble, and self-aware of his awkwardness and boundless energy. He’s asked to both display and hide nearly every emotion imaginable, and you will never catch him faking it. What a remarkable performance. And fortunately for him, Guadagnino has mounted a feature worthy of this star-making turn: it has a dozen of the most memorable shots of the year, perhaps the best of which is at a train station. Oliver is somewhere inside, unseen by Elio, whom we only see the back of, as the train is yanked away from us deep into the screen and beyond, hurtling faster and faster away from Elio’s motionless body. Then an arm reaches out to say goodbye, but it’s a different man, to a different loved one. There are so many people in the world, and they are going through so many different things all at the same time, often in the same place.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized