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Phantom Thread

12 Jan

 

Food and appetite play key roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” which allegedly is the last appearance we’ll see from thespian great Daniel Day-Lewis. “Thread” is a strange period piece and not, on paper, the type of film you’d think Day-Lewis would go out on. But keep in mind this is a flick by PTA, one of the most meticulous filmmakers of his time, if not all time – “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Master” are among his many gems – and it’s a gasp to behold in composition alone.

The time is 1950s London, where haut fashion is defined by designers who create dresses and gowns for wealthy clients. Think of it as going to Versace or Wang’s house to get a gown tailor-made by the name-brander themselves. One such couturier, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is so fastidious and OCD that when we meet him, he’s daintily snipping every protruding nose hair before tucking his button-down into his pants with painfully diligent care, so as to not cause an unseemly fold or crease. Appearance and posture is everything. Then it’s on to breakfast in a sunny anteroom of Woodcock’s stately London townhouse, where the dressmaker sips tea gingerly and nibbles on pastries as he goes about his sketches. With him are his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and latest conquest (Camilla Rutherford) – a much younger woman treated as a hanger-on who’s on the way out. When the wholesome ingenue clangs her silverware once too much for Reynolds’ concentration and he chides her for the unconscionable and incessant interruptions, she, knowing full well of her fate and tired of being ignored, raises her voice. Reynolds barely looks across the table and, with cold, restrained calm, says, “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation.” This is a cue to his loyal sis to clean up his romantic mess and allow him to get on with business.

The next young muse Reynolds has for breakfast is a chestnut-haired lass by the name of Alma (Vicky Krieps). They don’t eat together, but she takes his breakfast order at an inn in the British countryside. It’s also the first time we see Reynolds’ face light up (he orders Welsh rarebit, sausage, eggs, biscuit, toast, jam and butter, and so on – enough to feed a small village, and an obvious metaphor for his consuming desire). The two become lovers, but the relationship does not proceed as the others. Alma is cagey beyond what her porcelain innocence would imply, and the fact that she doesn’t knuckle under to Reynolds’ usual controlling tactics rattles him. It’s also here that we learn Reynolds’ client base has begun to erode. All is not well in the house of Woodcock, and Cyril, ever alert to the unhappy undercurrents, tries to keep the seams from bursting. Quietly sinister parlor games ensue, and Alma attempts to seize the upper hand by frying up a few unfriendly omelettes. The tone feels dialed in from another movie, but Anderson, ever the master of continuity and flow, holds it all together. Continue reading

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Downsizing

24 Dec

 

You know that viral tiny house movement where folk show off cozy, cute mini abodes with all the home amenities amazingly in just 250 square feet? You may even have romanticized about trading your palatial digs for the micro version and living more simply. Nice idea, but not many of us would actually do it – we’re too attached to our big, consumptive lives measuring our worth in square feet and wallet size. But what if you could cut down on the consumptive part, stretch your dollar tenfold and live larger than if you won the Powerball jackpot? That’s somewhat the idea behind Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” where, in the near future, dwindling resources reaching “Soylent Green” critical levels has triggered a worldwide movement to conserve and cut back without sacrificing the lush life.

If that sounds like a win-win, it is – except that to do so you must get shrunk down to five inches and live in domed enclaves full of mini mansions, rolling green golf courses and swank nightclubs and eateries. Once done, your $50-a-week food budget can cover you for half a year. It’s a choice, and the world is roughly split down the middle between bigs and littles. Occupational therapist Paul Safrenek (local boy Matt Damon, more in the news these days for his backfiring #MeToo opines) and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig, in the film far too little) decide the only way to achieve the house of their dreams is to go small. The medical process isn’t so easy either, and god forbid you leave dental implants in during the process. The matter for Paul becomes a quest for self-discovery in a new land after his wife (genders separate as they do the process en masse and in the bare) balks in the eleventh hour before shrinkage and hops a jet elsewhere. Continue reading

I, Tonya

24 Dec

 

Quite the year, 1994. O.J. dominated the news. “Pulp Fiction” minted Harvey Weinstein and Quentin Tarantino as Hollywood heavy hitters. Then there was the sad saga of Tonya and Nancy, a relative footnote by comparison but gonzo enough to become tabloid fodder and seize the public’s attention. We all know what happened – or think we do: The darling and the obstreperous outsider going toe loop to toe loop, vying to be America’s figure-skating princess, then a lead pipe to the knee and instant villainy. Trial by press, as we’ve come to know so well these days, can be swift and without appeal. Such seemed to be the case for Tonya Harding after the hit on rival Nancy Kerrigan during their competition in Detroit preceding the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Less interested in right or wrong or justifications than it is about soul and motivation, Craig Gillespie’s sharp, witty “I, Tonya” plays fast and loose as it untangles the messy threads of Harding’s life, from humble origins with a controlling – if not abusive – mother to the fierce competitive could-be and a multitude of poor choices.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers, best known for his work on rom-coms such as “Hope Floats” and “Stepmom” (both in 1998) dug deep into the archival footage and interviewed the interested parties (Harding was involved in helping craft the narrative) to pull together what one might describe as the American Dream gone sideways. Just how close to the truth “I, Tonya” comes might be debatable, but it’s a wondrously compelling human drama armed with the fangs of dark comedy and fueled by outré plot twits that feel lifted right out of “Fargo” – a winning formula if ever there was one.  Continue reading

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

15 Dec

 

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” picks up right where “The Force Awakens” left off, and smartly so with Rey (Daisy Ridley, amping up the grit factor favorably) on a remote, bucolic planet trying to press Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) into a few rounds of Jedi training while Luke’s sister, Princess/Gen. Leia (a fitting final performance from Carrie Fisher, who passed away after principal photography completed) tries to steer the remaining Resistance forces to a new base with the evil Empire’s First Order in hot pursuit. How it all sorts out isn’t a straightforward affair, and that plays to its advantage with plenty of twists, turns and pleasant surprises to hold an audience rapt over the two-and-a-half-hour running time.

Given all that, it’s still an unenviable task to have to take over the reins from J.J. Abrams, the creative wunderkind who helmed “The Force Awakens” and has a reputation for making what’s old trendy and hip again – i.e., the “Star Trek” reboot – but Rian Johnson, who also scripted, proves more than game to go where Abrams has taken the next franchise trilogy, and beyond. To be sure, there’s a lot going on in “Last Jedi”; the gaping absence of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the elevation of Skywalker back to the fore (Hamill well up to the task), the deeper darkening of Darth Vader successor Kylo Ren (a palpably conflicted Adam Driver) and the Trump-like megalomania of the craggy supreme leader with the silly moniker of Snoke (Andy Serkis doing what he does best: seamless live-action capture) and even Yoda – yes, Yoda. But Johnson, who had so effectively juggled time travel threads folding back in on themselves in the satisfying sci-fi thriller “Looper” (2012), orchestrates it all masterfully, jumping from one far-flung point in the galaxy to the next without disconnect, and with plenty of humor and wit to fill any dead space. Continue reading

The Shape of Water

9 Dec

‘The Shape of Water’: Underwater love tale is a finely acted and truly immersive fantasy

 

Guillermo del Toro returns to fine form with this fairy tale-cum-horror story that effectively echoes the texture, mood and style of his 2006 gem, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Appetizing as that sounds, “The Shape of Water” doesn’t quite have the fullness or magical immersion of the Mexican auteur’s crowning achievement (to date) – but that’s a mighty yardstick for any film to be measured by.

Set in Cold War-era Baltimore, the narrative flows through the mundane life of a demure, mute cleaning woman named Elsa (Sally Hawkins, who lays it all on the line and should be recognized for such a fine effort), who we learn grew up an orphan and was abused as a child. Given all that, Elsa’s got pretty neat digs above a classic nickelodeon (and del Toro has fun with the marquee and features it plays) and works the nightshift at a secretive military installation where all kinds of strange experiments growl and bark from behind steel doors – often requiring a SWAT team of cleaners to mop up the bloody aftermath.

Locked behind one such portal is an amphibious humanoid referred to as “The Asset,” something of a sleeker version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon if crossed with Abe Sapien from del Toro’s raucously fun “Hellboy” films. Chained and shackled in a pool, the creature is routinely beaten and electrocuted by a square-jawed operative named Strickland (Michael Shannon) who fished it out of the murky waters of South America. Strickland goes after his charge with all the oppressive superiority of a plantation owner, and Shannon’s natural southern drawl helps sell the notion. If there’s any question as to what del Toro is aiming for, there’s a scene at a diner where a black couple are not allowed to sit at the counter and Elsa’s next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), exists deep in the closet and is shunned regularly for his quirky “difference.” Then there’s Elsa’s understanding work partner, Zelda (the ever-affable Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman. In short, everyone around Elsa who gets her is disenfranchised or oppressed. They’re a merry band of outliers, a not so subtle sociopolitical subtext – that feels a bit too strapped on – and the most robust and likable of all that come across the screen.  Continue reading

Wodner Wheel

9 Dec

 

You know how it goes with Woody Allen films (at least since the mid-1990s, around the time of his tabloid break from Mia Farrow): one a year, with every third effort being a worthy nugget, preceded by and antecedent by two duds. Just take the electric “Blue Jasmine” (2013), which rightly garnered the royal Cate Blanchett an Oscar, followed up by the sluggish “Magic in the Moonlight,” which squandered the talents of two Oscar winners, and “Irrational Man,” the unholy marriage of Phillip Roth and Alfred Hitchcock. “Cafe Society” (2016) marked an up, which leads us to Allen’s latest, “Wonder Wheel.” Does it follow the model? Yes, but not entirely.

A key narrative device in “Wonder Wheel” are asides to the audience by a hunky Coney Island lifeguard named Mickey (Justin Timberlake) who patrols the shores sometime after the end of the Second World War, as America sits perched on the cusp of prosperity. Hope and prospect seem to be everywhere for everybody, except a merry-go-round operator named Humpty (Jim Belushi, interestingly cast and auspiciously named) and his wife, Ginny (Kate Winslet), a failed actress turned grousing waitress. They’re both on second marriages; he has problems with the sauce, and her preteen son from a previous marriage has an affinity for lighting impromptu fires. There’s also the matter of Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (an ebullient Juno Temple), whom Humpty disowned after she ran off and married a Miami gangster. Shortly into the film Carolina returns, seeking refuge with the desire to go to night school to become a teacher. It makes for a happy reunion until mob heavies from Miami show up looking for their boss’ dame.

Despite the myriad moving parts and personalities, “Wonder Wheel” is unquestionably Winslet’s “Blue Jasmine” opportunity; the entirety of the drama flows through Ginny, the cumulative angst, anxiety and ephemeral moments of joy, erupting through her in deeply emotive bursts. Like “Jasmine” too, “Wheel” bears the indelible imprint of a Tennessee Williams drama, replete with claustrophobic quarters, grand dreams, dank, rife sexual desire and assured tragedy. Allen’s orchestration may feel a bit stagey, but it works effectively to emboss the moments of intimacy and confrontation that come mostly in tightly tied tandems, one melting into the other or the other laying the tinder for the other to ignite.

It takes a while, but we find out Ginny and Mickey are having a thing under the boardwalk. He’s an attentive lover and earnestly entertains the notion of dropping out of grad school (he served in the South Pacific and now wants to be a playwright) and running off with Ginny, saving her from a loveless marriage. Then enters Carolina. The attraction between the ingénue and lifeguard is fast and instantaneous and happens right before Ginny’s eyes when she introduces the two during a chance encounter on the boardwalk. If ever there was an emotional house of cards, this is it, and not all the players in the incestuous love triangle are fully aware of others’ involvement – Greek playwrights would approve. Continue reading

Battle Over Bike Lanes in Cambridge

3 Dec

 

Fritz Donovan, presiding officer of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, speaks at a Wednesday group meeting on bicycle concerns. (Photos: Tom Meek)

A neighborhood group gathered and voted Wednesday seemingly to form a committee urging city officials to reevaluate and fix recently installed bike lanes it felt weren’t addressing traffic-safety goals. It was similar to the conclusion of a Monday meeting held by a different group.

There was overlap in attendance between the Monday “Safe Streets for All” meeting in East Cambridge and the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association meeting held Wednesday, but Fritz Donovan, the neighborhood group’s presiding officer, said this was “a neighborhood initiative that had been set up before.” More than 60 people attended the earlier meeting; nearly 100 gathered Wednesday at a Spaulding Hospital meeting room, including association members, bicyclists and other concerned citizens.

After many speakers and a near-unanimous association vote to set up a committee, there was little time to discuss how the two groups might collaborate or cooperate in getting more bicyclist traffic enforcement, “revisiting” the installed bike lanes on Brattle and Cambridge streets and playing a bigger role in future installations. Continue reading