Category Archives: Reviews

‘Phantom Thread’ Review: An elegant, dreamlike, hilarious psychological romance

Phantom Thread is a strange film, one that could only really sprout from the mind of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Yet, its strangeness might be precisely what offers viewers so much to eat up.

Following master fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he courts Alma (Vicky Krieps), the film revels in the psychological dynamics between the two as their relationship grows. From misunderstanding each other’s intentions to nailing each other’s faults directly on the head, the two constantly negotiate emotional control. It’s often overtly uncomfortable, toned by a sense of deliberateness in Anderson’s delivery. We’re meant to, ourselves, become a third party in the fluctuating conversation.

That aspect of the film, the ambiguity and the resulting passive aggressiveness, is deliciously hilarious in its nastiness, especially when blurted with full pompous force by Daniel Day-Lewis. Woodcock is rendered utterly charming, magnetically powerful and horribly ridiculous, all at the same time.

But the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis, even owning him in certain scenes. The film likely wouldn’t have worked without her turning in a performance so effectively controlled, her glare as cutting as razor blades, because much of the content literally requires Krieps to dominate her co-star with her presence. And thankfully, Alma is given the necessary agency and moments of power to keep the film from becoming some kind of sick show.

In Anderson’s construction of story, which is both fiercely and elegantly polished, Phantom Thread can be described as a genuine psychological romance — a subgenre not too common in contemporary cinema. But there’s also something about the director’s touch that evokes a nearly dreamlike aura when watching the film, similarly to the effect of The Master.

This film is, by all means, about love. When Woodcock and Alma are in sync — and especially in that climactic moment when they finally come to a true understanding of what exactly makes the other tick — the characters seemingly float in space and time, lifted up by the rich and depthful film photography of Anderson and his camera crew, the transfixing work of costume designer Mark Bridges and the somehow pleasantly visceral, overwhelmingly wistful and absolutely enchanting score by Jonny Greenwood.

As the credits start to roll, Phantom Thread begins to feel like a lovely dream itself. It’s an experience that’s hard to put to words, but it’s one that we long for and fall for in storytelling.

Grade: 9.0/10

 

Featured image via Focus Features.

‘Molly’s Game’ Review: Jessica Chastain is electric in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut

Aaron Sorkin is one of the few screenwriters to have become a recognizable name to the general audience, and for good reason. His scripts, for the likes of The Social Network and Steve Jobs, are masterful. So, him making his directorial debut, not only in features, but in either film or television, is a major point in his career.

With Molly’s Game, Sorkin proves himself behind the camera as well as he does on the page. Following Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) as she runs one of the most prestigious underground poker games in the country, the film is full of flash and glamor, and the editing of high stake sequences both at the table and beyond it is razor sharp.

But Sorkin does not simply allow the film to be about the extravagance of the poker. Every part of the story builds the character of Molly Bloom in deliciously dynamic feminist fashion. Much of the conflict of the story comes from toxic men and their abuse of power, such as when Bloom’s day job boss, who initially started the poker game, forces her to work for free because he thinks she’s making too much off of tips from the game.

Yet, this conflict adds to the central dilemma at Bloom’s core. She was nearly an Olympic skier until sustaining a devastating injury, and, ever since, or maybe even much earlier from her father’s tough parenting, she’s been searching for identity. The structure of the film revolves around this search, in that Bloom is portrayed at her highest when the games are going well and the players respect her, but that high only leads her to overcompensate and endanger what defines her — a structurally brilliant ebb and flow of character development.

Bloom is so well-defined and well-rounded, but it’s difficult to imagine her in the hands of anyone other than Jessica Chastain. Bloom narrates throughout the movie — a surprising move that somehow works, in part because the narration is edited so smoothly into the rhythm of the pacing, but largely because of Chastain’s vigorous line delivery.

When on screen, Chastain manages the tricky balancing act of channeling the spark of Sorkin’s dialogue while also shaping a character that feels naturally lived in. And as the film comes to an end and Chastain completely owns the character’s climactic moment, we truly feel for Bloom on an unexpected emotional level.

While it may not have held a stylistic flair quite like David Fincher’s The Social Network, Molly’s Game showcases Sorkin’s undoubtable directorial ability to translate the page into a magnetic visual story. But even regardless of that, the film is a platform upon which Jessica Chastain reasserts herself as one of the most powerful actresses working today.

Grade: 8.5/10

 

Featured image via Michael Gibson/STX Entertainment.

‘The Greatest Showman’ Review: Too showy and never great

It’s never a great sign when many aspects of a film have been done better elsewhere, which is the case with the Hugh Jackman-starring musical The Greatest Showman

In it, Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, a showman in the late 1800s, and he’s unsurprisingly charming. But Jackman has played almost this exact role before with far more complexity and emotional vigor in The Prestige. If one has seen the Christopher Nolan film, it’s difficult to watch The Greatest Showman without thinking of it.

Television spots will also make sure that the general public knows that the songwriters on this film are the Oscar-winning duo behind La La Land. And while there are some rousing numbers, such as the popular “This Is Me,” the music never really plants itself in viewers’ minds as each piece feels overdone and jarringly anachronistic. The seemingly key ingredients that the duo is missing are the musical help of the masterful Justin Hurwitz, composer of La La Land, and a good story.

The music seems to end up emotionally manipulative because the story asks the songs to do the leg work. When key character development is meant to occur, we’re asked to accept it in the form of a song. This can occasionally work when the song is beyond exceptional, such as the gleefully playful and vulnerable “A Lovely Night” or the heart-wrenching “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” both from La La Land. But no song here reaches that kind of level, resulting in what is meant to be an emotional journey falling flat.

“This Is Me” comes close, but that song leads to another issue with the film, which posits itself as a celebration of humanity through outcasts and those who’ve been othered. But, outside of the song, the film never takes the point of view of those characters nor develops them thoroughly. At one point, one of them professes his appreciation for the “family” that Barnum has built. Yet, we haven’t seen much of this family in the first place and we’ve seen too much of Barnum treating them poorly for a redemption to be earned, or for its purported celebration to be earned either.

Strangely, though, it’s difficult to entirely hate the film. It’s not consistently visually dazzling, but it has its moments of pure wonder amid colorful, eye-popping costumes and sets. To go along with that, there’s an undercurrent of a struggle for happiness in every storyline, which latches on, at least loosely. And Zendaya stands out with the most lived-in and genuinely felt performance.

If anything, The Greatest Showman is a film that can bring families to a show, just as Barnum did. That’s worth something.

Grade: 5.8/10

 

Featured image 20th Century Fox.

‘The Shape of Water’ Review: A fantasy as rich emotionally as it is visually

When a film has a fantastical premise, it must naturalize that concept in order to sell it to an audience that doesn’t come from that world. It’s an achievement that’s often underappreciated and overlooked, but, when done well, it can result in cinematic magic.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman working in an underground government facility, and the facility’s captured amphibian man (Doug Jones) with whom she falls in love. And due to cohesive, visually beautiful and thematically rich work from all departments, the film is perhaps the epitome of that kind of magic.

The most emotionally moving layer of The Shape of Water is its theme of the other. del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor pace out Elisa’s growing attachment to the creature so smoothly and precisely, and center it on moments personally meaningful to the characters. The creature is a being that doesn’t communicate with language the way humans do and grows a bond with Elisa through action and sign language. And in a stunning scene from Hawkins, Elisa explains that she feels so close to this creature because he can’t understand that she’s mute — or how she is, as she says, “incomplete.”

The framing of character, mainly in regard to Elisa, but also in how the same might be true for the creature, grabs the viewer’s heart with full force as it relies on vulnerability forced upon these two by a world unaccepting. The scenes with only these two are transcendent, concoctions of Alexandre Desplat’s floating score, Dan Laustsen’s swimming cinematography, visually arresting craft work from the likes of makeup and production design, and just the beauty of the concept of the moments in the first place.

Much of it wouldn’t work, though, if Sally Hawkins weren’t a powerhouse. Dialogue can often be a cop out in explaining a character’s traits and motivations, so the fact that we understand Elisa as well as we do any other character in film this year is an accomplishment nearly beyond words. Hawkins leverages physicality, not just in sign language, but in how she signs, in how her eyes communicate with the other character in the scene, in how she moves through rooms and hallways with a levity and wonder that tell us exactly what Elisa is thinking.

Yet, the rest of the cast is also magnificent. Richard Jenkins’ performance as Giles is lived in, an almost foil to Hawkins’ mute character as his is full of words. But we get the same sense — of course, individualized in its specifics — of how Giles himself feels incomplete, of how he’s been othered. And his chemistry with Hawkins is just delightful, resulting in an onscreen friendship that is so depthful and lovely.

Michael Shannon also thrives as the film’s antagonist, Richard Strickland. For some storytellers, there might’ve been an inclination to offer Strickland less development than he receives here, and it would’ve been understandable, which is why it’s so refreshing that del Toro and Taylor dive deep into his psychology. We get a sense of his motivations and see those expanded upon, and Shannon’s growling sneer is the perfect device to take it all even further.

In fact, there’s so much going on in every minute of The Shape of Water. Beneath everything, Guillermo del Toro offers a love letter to cinema of the past, similarly to La La Land, and two particular scenes, one being a tender musical ode and the other a striking and gritty noir sequence, are delicious.

But what sticks with us about this film is that empathy that’s offered to its characters. The visuals are stunning — no one does fantasy and truly sells it and layers it into every corner of the frame quite like del Toro — but those visuals are even more memorable because of the tone of empathy that del Toro injects into it all.

The Shape of Water asks us to care for one another, to listen to those who feel incomplete and not only help them feel otherwise, but fully support the life they want to live. And that is a kind of story worth championing.

Grade: 8.6/10

 

Featured image via Fox Searchlight Pictures.

‘Hostiles’ Review: A haunting, meditative Western ruminating on duty and hatred

Great contemporary Westerns are few and far in between. They either come from a big time director like Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained, are remade from classics like the Coens’ True Grit and James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma or strike at just the right time like David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water.

Writer-director Scott Cooper has neared the genre with the tangentially related Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, so it’s not much of a surprise that he’s the next to deliver.

Hostiles, following Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) as he escorts Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) across the country despite hating him for killing many of his comrades, is brutal from minute one until the very end. But the brutality, the soul crushing violence serves narrative purpose. The film ruminates on the hatred that builds between these intruding white men and the Native Americans fighting for their lands, and Cooper pulls off a tricky moral balance in placing a white man, full of hate, at the head of his story.

Cooper evokes empathy for Blocker and for Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) through the unfathomable violence that we see them encounter, while periodically and carefully invoking a sense of history to temper viewers’ full allegiance to these characters and force audiences to confront the long term, less visible violence that Yellow Hawk, his family and his people have faced.

The turn of Blocker’s morality is a fascinating one. Another of the underlying themes of the film is in how we follow duty, where duty leads us and where duty ends. The army men are often given direct orders to further the genocide of the Native Americans, and Blocker believes that this separates him from the others who just kill to kill.

But in taking on a duty that is in such direct tension with his hatred, one that the film contextualizes with violence, Blocker almost becomes like the audience, slowly forced to confront his shortsightedness of simply following duty ordered by men — and Cooper’s climactic moment for Blocker is precise and perfect in regard to the character’s arc.

Hostiles is slow and meditative, but there’s still a fire in its pacing. The beats are perfectly doled out and hit hard, creating a pulsating feel to the film’s progression. And when those moments hit, they’re shot hauntingly by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, whether that be in low angle close-ups of broken men or in Deakins-esque long shots of heart-wrenching sights. Layer in Max Richter’s swelling score, and the film becomes emotionally overwhelming in a very effective way.

At times, though, Cooper does overwrite beats. So much of Hostiles works, and sticks with us long after we’ve left the theater, because of how quiet and subtle it all is — and it seems that Cooper is, sometimes, not confident in his ability to sell those quiet moments, causing him to indulge in laying out his point a bit too clearly.

But even then, that doesn’t become much of an issue due to every single actor performing at the top of their game. Rosamund Pike plays the character who encounters the most, and the most shocking tragedy in the film, and she turns all of herself over to the role to portray the trauma that the violence causes. Wes Studi’s role is, in terms of dialogue, small, but Cooper often frames him in close-up and Studi commands the screen.

And Christian Bale turns in one of his greatest performances, which is saying something when considering the career that he’s had. Similarly to Studi, Bale is riveting in his quietude, as he’s somehow able to portray his character’s interiority without saying a word. And when he speaks, it’s often soft and subdued, but there’s a consistent underlying intensity, achieved through how Bale interacts physically with his counterpart in the scene and how he often pushes the emotional work from his mouth to his eyes. It’s truly the sign of a master, and it’s a performance that renders Hostiles a brilliant Western.

Grade: 8.7/10

 

Featured image via Entertainment Studios.

‘The Post’ Review: Steven Spielberg delivers a prescient drama that lacks subtlety

With The Post, which follows Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) during the leak and coverage of the Pentagon Papers, director Steven Spielberg employs immersive filmmaking techniques to evoke the feeling that we’re a fellow journalist amid this madness. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski opt to shoot many of the scenes handheld, constantly moving as they follow those in the newsroom. A particular sequence, with journalists packed into Bradlee’s house, is riveting in its composition, the camera panning to the different reporters as they make discoveries, the editing fluid and the chemistry between the actors magnetic. Even when the key players are motionless, the camera is often moving, slowly tracking and observing — like during a discovery — or in close-up.

Both Hanks and Streep lead this film brilliantly with charisma and charm, particularly in Hanks’ all American gravitas. He’s not particularly masterful in anyway, but his take on Ben Bradlee, with a slightly cocked East coast accent, is entirely engaging and just plain fun to watch.

But — not to discount Hanks — The Post, in regard to its actors, is Meryl Streep’s show. Much of the film is about the resolve of Graham as a women leading a newspaper with a board and newsroom full of, almost entirely, men, and Spielberg’s visualization of this is intriguing. Graham is often shot from behind as she walks into a room with a sea of black suits, their heads all turning to her. And Kaminski pushes in close on Graham as we see her try to find the words that she knows, but feels like she can’t say due to the overwhelming men talking over her.

Streep injects Graham, who is comfortable with people yet uncomfortable in her position, with a simultaneous confidence and vulnerability that is incredibly fine tuned. There’s something so controlled about how Streep paces out her dialogue and movement that’s difficult to grasp because it is such an intangible skill to be so precise while maintaining naturalism. While Graham, as a character, may be crowded by these men, Streep herself commands the screen, which renders Graham’s moment of power so satisfying.

The Post, though, is a difficult film to grapple with on multiple levels. Spielberg has, as of late, lacked subtlety and this film is no exception. It seems as though The Post wants to make sure viewers confront its themes directly and explicitly rather than allow the subtlety of the progressing narrative to seep into them, which changes how audiences consume the story. The ending literally states the themes through dialogue spoken in close-up.

While this is a problem for other films, it doesn’t hamper The Post’s effectiveness because of the time during which it’s arrived. For many, championing the press’ first amendment rights has been an everyday scenario for about a year now. Subtlety in narrative would’ve surely made the film a masterpiece. But explicitness, with the topic being something so many agree on and find so prescient now, doesn’t negatively impact the enjoyment of the film even if it doesn’t allow it to be, on a technical level, as good as it had the potential to be.

Regardless of its faults, it’s hard not to appreciate the feat that Spielberg pulled off, delivering the film just under eight months after beginning principal photography. It’s also hard to deny that, since it’s good, The Post is a valuable film in today’s age.

Grade: 8.2/10

 

Featured via 20th Century Fox.

‘Loving Vincent’ Review: A mesmerizing, profound portrait of a painter

Loving Vincent is the first feature film made up entirely of paintings.

That’s right. Each frame of the film is a painting, in the style of Vincent van Gogh, and, unless this group of storytellers decides to do something like this again, we might not ever see another film like it.

That approach genuinely offers the film something special. Each frame is a mesmerizing piece of art, a wondrous visual delight that captivates as intensely as van Gogh paintings do in a museum and allows us to marvel at the craftsmanship behind the film. The flow between frames is a transfixing dance of color that highlights faces, enriches landscapes and renders any sort of movement magical. And to see, in many instances, famous van Gogh paintings integrated into the visuals of the film is a treat for those familiar with the painter.

Loving Vincent is beautiful in the deepest sense of the word.

Thankfully, that’s because the film isn’t simply a gimmick. In surprising fashion, the film actually functions fascinatingly on a structural level. The story picks up after the death of van Gogh as Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) ventures out to deliver a letter written by Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) to his brother. On the way, Roulin stops by many people that interacted with van Gogh during his life. And the story ingeniously allows each person’s tale of van Gogh to be drastically different. Through all of these tales, Roulin becomes obsessed with the death of van Gogh and the possibility that van Gogh didn’t commit suicide, but was actually murdered. Roulin commits himself, in his eyes, to doing right by van Gogh.

At first, the structure masquerades as an almost detective-led murder mystery narrative. But as the film goes on and the terribly sad details of van Gogh’s mental struggles are slowly revealed, it becomes clear that this film is about mental health and how everyone else might perceive someone struggling with depression. There are those that barely knew him, interpreting his reserved nature as rude coldness. There are those that saw him from afar, admiring his quietude and skill. And there are those that were close to him, that understood what he was going through, but still failed to help him even when they tried.

Like van Gogh’s paintings, Loving Vincent is a film that belongs to impressionism both in its style and its structure, not just for the sake of it, but to carefully construct an impression of mental health and how we, the voyeurs, are in no way authorities on who that struggling person is at heart.

The structure may not be perfectly edited — the first half hour is rather slow — and some of the dialogue feels a bit too novelistic in its exposition. But as the film builds, the pace smoothes out and the thematic work, of crafting empathy in the viewer and forcing the viewer to constantly confront the assumptions of the voyeurs so as not to be another one of them, resonates deeply and profoundly. When it comes down to it, the style of the film mirroring van Gogh’s style forces us to see the film through his eyes and, thus, digest the narrative on his terms.

On a curious final note, Loving Vincent, which shot live action footage of actors (one of them being Saoirse Ronan) before painting over it, feels like, perhaps, a new type of performance capture. The emotion seen in close-ups is spellbinding, and likely wouldn’t be there had the film not based paintings in real actors. The film might be groundbreaking in that regard.

Grade: 8.4/10

 

Featured image via BreakThru Films/Trademark Films.

« Older Entries