Every Little Stitch of Alma and Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread opens with a simple, stately title card and the emerging sound of a crackling fire.  Soon, a moodily lit young woman (an impeccably unpredictable Vicky Krieps) is providing the introductory voice-over to our cinematic affair.  Right there, Anderson upends our expectations, as this being a Daniel Day Lewis film (and purportedly his last!), one expected if anyone would be narrating this tale, it would have been him.

Daniel Day Lewis is indeed the main focus of attention, a classic Andersonian archetype, the tortured artist/mad genius…a true narcissist who is also somehow sympathetic, likely a result of Lewis’ and Anderson’s own symbiotic genius.  Their finely stitched designer Reynolds Woodcock is the toast of the 1950’s London fashion scene, and his art, those costumes, are to die for.  But the story is told mostly from the point of view of his new love interest, the enigmatic Alma (Krieps), an initially demure waitress he picked up in the British countryside…both actress and environ exquisitely photographed, as is every single thing, by Anderson’s camera lens.

We know there’s more to Alma because of how Anderson frames the story, but we’re never given any exposition on her (and only a modicum of backstory – mostly surrounding his mother – for Reynolds) and thus we’re forced to judge her (and ultimately Reynolds) only by what unfolds on-screen.  We slowly see how Alma takes hold and upends Reynolds’ structured life enmeshed with his sister Cyril (a perfectly reserved but commanding Lesley Manville).  Alma is far more than the typical girl Reynolds and Cyril routinely toss aside like an off-season dress.  In fact, she emerges from her cocoon as another Andersonian archetype…the person willing to do anything to fit into, and keep together, their new makeshift family, no matter how dysfunctional (in ways both comic and tragic) that family becomes. Continue reading

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Well, He’s No Solomon…in Love & Friendship

Love & Friendship

Mild-mannered, well-groomed, high-stakes, period-piece social satire reigns supreme in Whit Stillman’s sharp film adaptation of a “lost” and incomplete Jane Austen novella.  Austen simply titled it after her conniving, widowed but still lively anti-heroine Lady Susan (played with perfectly vivacious high-brow snark by Kate Beckinsale), but Stillman plays on Austen’s “Blank & Blank” template and renames it Love & Friendship.  The title itself a rouse, much like the import of debutante season in Stillman’s Metropolitan.

As in the most superior of Austen or Stillman works, high society types are on display in all of their entertaining mannerisms and foibles.  The two authors separated by centuries seem a perfect marriage, as humor both scathing and dry, bites and blows across the posh manners, country estates and London townhouses where Susan plots to find both her and her daughter (Morfydd Clark) rich husbands to secure their futures.  Never do the characters seem aware of their preposterousness, as if all of life is a parlor game, and their scruples (or lack thereof) never are challenged even as gossip and innuendos challenge their lot and plot. Continue reading

Difficult Difficult Lemon Difficult

...oh, YES WE CAN!

...oh, YES WE CAN!

A review of IN THE LOOP:

Satire is so hard to pull off.  It’s so far from being “easy peasy lemon squeezy” I would go as far to say that it’s “difficult difficult lemon difficult.”  It’s a British term, you’ll catch on soon.

For the past ten years satire has been regulated to animation (the South Park movie), puppetry (Team America), and well, something called Sacha Baron Cohen, and let’s be honest, is that even real satire, or just mockery?  We really haven’t seen anything live-action of this sort since Wag the Dog, which is why it’s so refreshing to be back In the Loop.  And guess what?  Politics are funny again!

In the Loop is the minor masterstroke of Armando Iannucci, and his central conceit is to imagine a Dr. Strangelove “rush to war” scenario done up in a modern context and filmed like an episode of “The Office” — the British version.  Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell provide the fire power through their whiplash inducing witty dialogue that in turn is spewed forth by a live-wire cast of American and British veterans all playing their A-game. Continue reading

Living in GreeneLand

For the past three years I’ve been living in GreeneLand.  For those who have never visited, it’s sometimes hard to explain my love for the place.  Friends and family know I’m always reading two things: Graham Greene and something else.  I’m currently reading The Quiet American, which in 1955 was the first major work to warn of entanglement in the Vietnam conflict.  If I were asked to pick any person living or dead to have a one-on-one conversation with, I would chose to share a bottle of scotch with Graham Greene.  He was in his prime during the WWII era and died in 1991, but his works are just as relevant today as they were when first published.  He’s the rare author who is just as popular with readers as he is with his peers and aspiring writers, renowned for his commercial and critical success, and he’s among the most influential and widely read English language novelists of the 20th century.  As far as I’m concerned, he’s also the best. Continue reading

A Review of Roger Donaldson’s “The Bank Job”

CAPTION: Saffron Burrows tells police, “Why, no, officer, I’m not smuggling anything in my cheek bones.” 

I’ll Throw a Brick at You!, 11 March 2008
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Sold to the American public as another D-level action pic staring Jason Statham, “The Bank Job” is actually a crafty British heist flick based on an incredible true story. The screenwriters deserve credit for creating a serviceable script with so many intertwining stories based on little actual evidence, conjecture, here-say, and conspiracy theories revolving around royal and political sex scandals, militant Caribbean drug lords, undercover MI5 agents, bumbling crooks, crooked cops, and double-crosses and cover-ups. It could’ve easily been a confusing mess, but providing the viewer pays attention, “The Bank Job” gets the job done as crackerjack entertainment.

Though aptly directed by veteran Roger Donaldson, the film does suffer from an overly salacious opening ten minutes designed to grab the audience’s attention, some shoddy editing, and an intrusively bad action-style music score. There’s also an attention to 1970’s period detail in the dialogue and clothes that comes across as caricature and adds an accidentally humorous undertone to the otherwise cold-as-ice affair. However, the details of the “truth is stranger than fiction” tale and the fun had by the ensemble cast make for a breezy way to spend a few hours.

Donaldson also has an eye for the ladies. Led by a smashingly gorgeous Saffron Burrows (looking like a European version of Michelle Pfeiffer circa 1992), the powerful women depicted in “The Bank Job” are far more than just eye candy. Statham is also fairly good as the head of the bank robbing crew, and when he finally throws a brick at a guy near the end of the film, it will put a smile on any action fan’s face.

Things get tidied up a bit too nicely in the end, where it seems only the really villainous characters have to face justice, but before the credits role, there are a series of real-life epilogued details plastered on the screen that make the viewer realize maybe this all really did happen. Now that’s a jolly good show.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0200465/usercomments-25

A Review of David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises”

Haunting Low Wattage Glows in Dank London Night, 24 September 2007
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

An emotionally distraught London midwife (Naomi Watts) finds a mysterious diary on the body of a Russian teenage girl who died in childbirth and slowly sinks deeper into the grimy underbelly of London and uncovers a Russian mob where a lowly driver (Viggo Mortensen) is about to make a stunning play for power. Luckily for the audience, “Eastern Promises” is more in tune with screenwriter Steven Knight’s most recent film (the superb “Dirty Pretty Things”) than it is with director David Cronenberg’s previous endeavor (the criminally overrated “A History of Violence”).

Cronenberg has been honing a disturbingly minimalist directorial style in the later half of his career. It was so low-key the last time around, he actually managed to become the first person to un-direct a film with “A History of Violence.” My theory of un-direction stems from when a director films a piece of work in so minimalist a style, it actually negates any reason for the film to exist. Shockingly, this minimalist technique is put to some good use in “Eastern Promises” as it allows for the emergence of other far superior elements: the elegantly dark and gritty blue-gray cinematography of Peter Suschitzky, the evocative Russian-influenced score from Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore, the crafty and tightly focused screenplay from Knight, and most importantly, the amazing performances from the entire cast.

In the lead role of Nikolai, Viggo Mortensen, in tattoos from head to toe, adds new meaning to the idea of an actor throwing himself completely into a “physical role.” He delivers a raw, tense performance that is arguably the greatest of his career.

As Anna, Naomi Watts serves as the heart and soul of the film, giving the audience someone to relate to and root for as the plot grows increasingly dark and grim. Watts has been unfairly dismissed by some as an overly emotive post-modern “scream-queen” due to her roles in films like “Mulholland Drive,” “The Ring,” and “King Kong.” As she has matured as an actress, Watts has grown more subtle and nuanced in her method, and her performance here is richly textured and deeply rewarding as it emerges on the heels of her revelatory work in “The Painted Veil.” She’s the dim glow of hope in this stinking London underworld, and her character haunts the scenes of grotesque violence and criminal power plays that occur when she is off screen.

“Eastern Promises” also deserves credit for the tension it builds as the story unfolds. Cronenberg succumbs to his sadistic natural tendencies at clearly defined intervals throughout the film where shocking spurts of gore and violence rip through the minimalist style like a knife through the heart. This rising and sinking tension culminates in a Turkish sauna knife fight that is the violently dramatic flip-side of the comedic nude wrestling hotel scene in last year’s “Borat.” Like that scene, it exists only to shock, and it will have people buzzing.

Despite the inherent flaws of Cronenberg’s style which always seems to leave a bad taste in your mouth, “Eastern Promises” has just the right amount of star-power, classy production values, and shocking plot twists to be considered one of the best thrillers of 2007.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

http://imdb.com/title/tt0765443/usercomments-59