Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Phantom Thread

The opening score of Jonny Greenwood's score as we first hear it in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread implies a sense of unease to be expecting for the preceding film. Yes, much of the music is similar in tone to lounge music of the 1950s (when the film's set) but when the chords sharpen, pay attention.

Phantom Thread follows couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he finds a muse and model in waitress Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds has a controlling personality and a near-obsessive demand for his routines, something Alma sees firsthand. But as their relationship deepens, so too does a want for dominance in Alma.

In contrast to some of Anderson's previous films, Phantom Thread is more genteel in nature. Having his earlier work set in the likes of Las Vegas (Hard Eight) and 1970s Los Angeles (Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice), 1950s Britain seems like a decided shift for the director. But with the principal actors involved (Day-Lewis, Krieps, Lesley Manville), that detail practically becomes a lesser one.

Day-Lewis may have gotten the majority of the film's acclaim but that's not to dissuade Krieps' work in Phantom Thread. A relative unknown prior to this, she holds her own against the screen veterans (by no means an easy feat when Day-Lewis is involved). And if we're lucky, we won't be seeing the last of the Luxembourgian actress soon.

Phantom Thread -- much like Anderson's earlier film The Master -- relies on that false feeling of trust. You think the people you've just met are upstanding citizens of the human race but as you get to know them more, you realize there's more to them (and not all of it's good). And that's exactly what happens to both Reynolds and Alma.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Thoroughbreds

The general mood of Cory Finley's Thoroughbreds is one that doesn't feel quite right. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) seem to be comfortable in their privileged home lives. But as the opening scene shows, there's an underlying darkness in both them and the story.

If anything, Thoroughbreds bears resemblance to last year's The Killing of a Sacred Deer: upper-middle-class domesticity shattered by an unspecified mental disorder. (Amanda mentions at one point that her psychiatrist is basically guessing what she's afflicted with.) It's possible that this is how those from stable private lives doesn't always equate to stable frames of mind. (Just look at any serial killer; many of them appeared normal to others.)

Anyway, stories and accusations of "affluenza" have been circulating as of late so that might be what's happening in Thoroughbreds. (Amanda admits that she feels nothing when it comes to emotions.) Lily -- although she seems happy with her life -- is hiding behind a mask of her own so neither woman is of sound mind. But to what extent will their true selves become known?

Cooke and Taylor-Joy are great in Thoroughbreds but Anton Yelchin -- who died before the film's release -- is also someone of note here. (It's dedicated in his memory.) As with many of his roles when he was still alive, he showed promise of a long career ahead of him. Sadly, the events of that June day two years ago made that possibility fade away.

Thoroughbreds shows how some people can behave seemingly unprovoked. Much like Heathers before it, the film depicts how far one can go after being pushed for too long. And boy, the results can be messy.

My Rating: ****

Portrait of Jennie

Early in William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie, starving artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) manages to sell a sketch to sympathetic art dealer Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). Soon after, he meets a peculiar girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones). Her ways spark a fountain of inspiration in Eben but what's the story on Jennie?

The last of four films starring Cotten and Jones (the other being Since You Went Away, Love Letters, and Duel in the Sun), Portrait of Jennie has a more ethereal ambiance than their previous collaborations. (Seeing as how Dieterle also made the likes of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Devil and Daniel Webster, such a story wasn't too much of a stretch for him.) And bear in mind that this wasn't a big hit upon its release (though it has been vindicated by the passage of time).

Anyway, both Cotten and Jones were big box-office draws at the time (with Jones having several Oscar nominations and a win to her name). And as mentioned before, they've worked together before so the studio (read: most likely David O. Selznick) saw lightning striking again. Though none of the principal players are around anymore, their work lives on.

But what can be said of Portrait of Jennie without giving anything away? Perhaps what could be mentioned is that it's different from the various romances of the decade. It's a gradual build-up with Eben and Jennie's relationship, not an immediate love at first sight scenario. How often did you see that in older films?

Portrait of Jennie was very different from the many films of the era, and its originality makes it stand out among them. A slew of them are generally one-sided with romance but Dieterle makes sure not to do the same. (Doesn't always work but he at least tries.)

My Rating: ****

Friday, August 24, 2018

Sorry to Bother You

Society as of late has been turning into a textbook example of social Darwinism. Obviously, the survival of the fittest is in play but it's also the survival of the smartest; only those cunning enough will endure in this ever-changing world. But if this world is too tough to adapt to, what then?

Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You may be a satire of such a situation but boy, he doesn't pull any punches. Following Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he works a nondescript job as a telemarketer, he learns a technique in how to succeed in business without really trying. But will he be able to handle what his job expects of him?

It may have been written during the Obama administration but Sorry to Bother You has all the markings of what's wrong with this current one. Similar to Get Out and Dear White People (both of which also featured Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, respectively), the matter of race is explored too -- or rather, how those who aren't white are essentially screwed over time and time again. (Boy, how that happens to Cassius repeatedly here.)

And there's the matter of Sorry to Bother You's third act. Without giving anything away, all that can be said is that it turns the preceding two acts on their heads. Suffice to say that the events of the third act won't be forgotten after you see them unfold.

Sorry to Bother You shows immense promise from Riley as a film director and storyteller. All of the names attached to the film's cast feel right at home in their roles (Armie Hammer in particular), no one feels out of place. And to reiterate the previous paragraph, you won't forget that third act after you see it.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, August 6, 2018

Hester Street

Stories of beginning a new life are by no means an uncommon occurrence in either fiction of real life. Many of these tales hail from those emigrating to America, hoping to thrive in the land of opportunity. Of course, these streets paved with gold may end up looking a bit tarnished to some.

Joan Micklin Silver's Hester Street provides two such perspectives from someone who's made themself at home within American culture and someone who has a harder time in doing so. The former applies to Yankel (Steven Keats) -- who has rechristened himself "Jake" -- and the latter is his wife Gitl (Carol Kane), who has recently arrived from Russia with their son. But he's gotten a mistress during their few years apart...

Silver was moved by Hester Street's source novel -- Abraham Cahan's Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto -- because her parents were Russian Jews, prompting her to tell this story. (As well as changing the title, she changed the story's point of view from Jake to Gitl.) She felt it served as an ode to her heritage, and that's why Silver wanted this story to be told.

Their names aside, there are noted differences between Jake and Gitl. He has all but discredited his faith in favor of living the American way whereas she holds the one thing from the old world close to her heart. Were it not for their son, their relationship would have been over long before their emigration took place.

Hester Street is very much Silver's sonnet to where she came from, yes, but it's also a story of those who strive for a new life. Whether it's the past century or this current one, many of us have that desire to begin anew. But very seldom do we all achieve that possibility, especially one with a happy resolution.

My Rating: ****

Star 80

On August 14, 1980, Playboy model and rising actress Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her estranged husband Paul Snider, who committed suicide after doing the deed. This being one of the more prolific "if I can't have you, no one can" murders, it still carries a shock over thirty years later. But what provoked this violent act?

Three years after the murder-suicide, Bob Fosse made Star 80, a reference to Snider's vanity plate on his Mercedes Benz. Fosse was no stranger in depicting the cost of fame, be it fictional (Cabaret), factual (Lenny) or semiautobiographical (All That Jazz). But when it's a story that ends in bloodshed, that's where comparisons to his work end.

The film may be based on real events but several names and details were changed, some of them for legal purposes. A number of Stratten's real-life acting jobs were re-titled but the most telling tweak is that Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees) is clearly Peter Bogdonavich, whom Stratten was having an affair with at the time of her murder. (Bogdonavich himself -- who called the film inaccurate -- didn't want Fosse to tell this story because Fosse didn't know the full extent of it.)

Mariel Hemingway may be (pardon the expression) the star attraction of Star 80 but Eric Roberts is the real main draw. By many accounts, Snider was as much of a hustler in real life as he's depicted here. And boy, Roberts really knows how to sleaze it up. (Hugh Hefner even said Roberts was dead-on in his portrayal.)

Star 80 has that lingering sadness to it, knowing that Stratten's successes are tarnished by her ultimate fate. If anything, it serves as a how-to for identifying relationship red flags. Had Stratten known them early on in her courtship with Snider, she might be alive today...

My Rating: ****1/2

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Ralph Nelson's Requiem for a Heavyweight opens with a tracking shot fo bar patrons watching a boxing match on an unseen TV with immense interest. It then cuts to the mayhem of the fight as seen from the perspective of Luis "Mountain" Rivera (Anthony Quinn). It's this fight (up against Cassius Clay, no less!) that Rivera needs to call it quits if wants to stay alive.

With the help of his trainer Army (Mickey Rooney), Rivera tries to find some steady work outside the ring. His manager Maish Rennick (Jackie Gleason), however, has a number of debts to some bookies so he wants to Rivera to keep fighting. But what does the fighter's future hold?

There's a weariness to Requiem for a Heavyweight that shows an empathy to Rivera's situation. With a script penned by Rod Serling, that tiredness and cynicism make all the more sense. (Just watch The Twilight Zone or Seven Days in May.) The film's not in the mood for bullshit.

Now this version of Requiem for a Heavyweight has some noted changes from its original teleplay. (The lead character's named Harlan McClintock, for starters.) And the conclusion for the film is decidedly more depressing on many fronts. (But again, with Serling at the typewriter, that's not a surprise.)

Requiem for a Heavyweight is definitely not the kind of uplifting picture most boxing films were the previous decade. With Serling's shrewd views on full display, the film shines a sad light on those in Rivera's small circle. And as some episodes of The Twilight Zone showed, not everyone gets the happy ending they seek.

My Rating: ****