Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Phantom Thread

PHANTOM THREAD              B+               
USA  (130 mi)  2017  d:  Paul Thomas Anderson  

Arguably the most Kubrickian film in the post-Kubrick era, though it appears emotionally inert and not nearly as interesting, lacking some of that obsessional Kubrickian devotion to detail (for which there is no equal or comparison, as his curiosity knew no bounds), though it is exacting enough in its elegant precision, where this will have to do, with an impressive visual form showing surprising restraint, especially when seen in glorious 70mm, making this among the more exquisite cinema experiences possible in the modern era.  Given such an exceptional look throughout, balanced with an equally alluring French classical musical score, moving from Debussy, Fauré, and Berlioz, as well as Schubert and Brahms, along with a classical score by Jonny Greenwood, this is all largely a tone poem, a chamber piece getting inside the internal minds of a high couture house of fashion, as we observe them go through their regular workday routines, led by fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, Daniel Day-Lewis, a pretentiously obsessive and overly controlling man in East London in the early 50’s who maintains his childhood temperament, where everything has to be exactly as he wants it throughout his daily ordeal, as anything out of place will only detract from his creative impulses, something that bothers him to no end, letting the offending party hear about it with regularly occurring temper tantrums, all part of a normal day’s work in the House of Woodcock.  Equally austere is his beloved sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), affectionately referred to as “my old so-and-so,” a stone cold ice princess who ruthlessly observes every last detail and manages the financial concerns of the company, always protecting the emotional inner world of her brother, without which they could not possibly hope to stay in business, so his every need is catered to like a symphonic orchestra all in unison, making sure no one ever plays an incorrect note.  All of this is an exploration of British custom and manner, dressing members of the royal family, film stars, heiresses, socialites, and debutantes, the potential buyers of this overly personalized, expensive merchandise, as everyone and everything has a proper place in the working apparatus of British society, where royalty and nobility routinely ignore the concerns of ordinary citizens, as they’re too busy preening in the latest fashion designs coming out of these houses, finding the right festive or somber occasion to exhibit this costumed finery, as they’re only allowed to wear it around other equally pompous nobility, where putting wealth on display is what they do for a living.  The customs and manners of the wealthy aristocracy haven’t been examined like this since Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), an absolutely gorgeous film that relished in the pretentious fun of the upper classes, as it was explored through the eyes of the servants who were serving these prima donnas, so, much to the director’s own delight, one assumes, it was told with tongue in cheek.  Not so here, as it’s a much more intricate affair, exploring the world through the eyes of a full-fledged fashion god and his much younger mistress, exclusive fashion model, and ultimately his wife, Alma (Vicky Krieps, a relatively undiscovered actress from Luxembourg), a mere commoner whose worldly pleasures have little in common with the master of the house.   
A film of rhythm and routine, where the women of the seamstress brigade arrive early, gathered outside the door, greeted personally by Cyril or Woodcock himself as they climb up the narrow staircase on their way up to their workroom and immediately find their work stations, putting on white coats, busily hand-stitching each magnificent dress, (where in a film like this one must recognize the costume designer, Mark Bridges).  While there is order and quiet in their daily regimen, it is clear these women are overworked, and used to it, constantly working after hours on special orders that must meet unheard of deadlines, with no complaining or even an ounce of displeasure uttered, though late in the film we do discover one of the seamstresses has taken her talents to another couture house, much to the chagrin of Woodcock, who takes it as a personal affront to his character, moaning about how unfair everything is, which his sister endures briefly before telling him to buck up, as these things happen, unfortunately, and there’s really nothing they can do about it, so get over it and move on.  Her practical viewpoint is the backbone of the organization, as Woodcock himself is all aflutter, a moody iconoclast who distrusts all, including himself, giving it all to his profession, leading a monastic life where he rarely sleeps, rising each day searching for more fashion inspirations, spending most of his time drawing his latest ideas.  Hating interruptions, the man is the picture of the walking wounded if even so much as a sound is ever heard out of place, as his all-important mood depends upon complete obedience to his everchanging temperament.  While Day-Lewis seems to specialize in domineering characters who are used to having things their way, bullying those around them to get their way, this is reportedly his last role, claiming he will be retiring from acting, though making himself scarce will only increase the price of offers to come out of retirement, most likely a shrewd business decision.  Because of all the accumulated aggravation that comes with the pressure of his chosen profession, Woodcock has been dreaming lately about his beloved mother, who taught him the trade, believing she is hovering over him, keeping watch, so his sister suggests a trip to the country would do him good, suggesting he get a head start and she’ll join him the next day.  This sets the stage for the all-important meeting between Woodcock and the shy, introverted waitress that serves him, a bit clumsy, but devoted to his every need.  Almost instantly, he asks if she’ll have dinner with him, introducing her to the opulence of his world, retreating to his work quarters afterwards where on their first date he dresses her, designing a gown for her right there on the spot, taking her overall measurements (there are more than a dozen) while Cyril jots them down in an oddly overstuffed personalized catalogue, freely intruding into her personal interior space, as if stripping her naked and commenting upon her physique, though after expressing some displeasure about her own unconventional form, thinking it doesn’t fit together well, Cyril reassures her she has the perfect physique for her brother, as “He likes a little belly.”  

The film has doses of humor throughout, but most can be attributed to the absurdity of Woodcock’s demeanor, an overly fussy perfectionist who is easily thrown off his game, where the sounds Alma makes having breakfast in the morning become a prominent theme of the film, as it grates on his nerves, such as buttering her toast, or stirring her coffee, stomping off in a huff, with Cyril calmly acknowledging “If breakfast isn’t right, it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.”  The underlying dynamic of their relationship, however, is rock solid, building upon a trust factor established as his leading model, as she’s completely devoted to him, just like everyone else that surrounds him, where all obey his every wish, never once stepping out of line.  His demanding nature, however, gets the better of him, as even he needs to slow down a bit to keep from overburdening himself with all his petty grievances, which he only addresses through inappropriate tantrums, his way of letting off steam, which seem to balance the equilibrium and get him back into working order.  These mood swings are quite extreme, with Alma taking note, assuming an air of quiet rebellion, becoming something we never expected, discovering her own home grown solution for providing the needed balance, as only when he’s completely exhausted and off his feet does he turn tender and appreciative of her care, lavishing him with love and affection.  So Alma, so quiet and reticent most of the time, meek as a mouse, learns how to push the buttons, dangerously so, pushing him to near exhaustion, resembling the tactics of extreme sadomasochists who strangle their lovers just prior to sexual release, increasing their pleasure by dangerously toying with levels of pain.  This allure of toxicity is a dangerous game, yet it’s the only way to restore any equilibrium to his ill-mannered, overly dominant behavior, balancing his outlandishness with a restorative remedy, where only she has the power to bring him down to size, carefully watching over him in the process.  It’s an odd set of circumstances to be sure, but if anything can be known about the personal eccentricities of the wealthy it’s that many lead dysfunctional personal lives, at least according to Truman Capote, a socialite writer who partied with the rich and famous and wrote about it, both in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and his posthumously published Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel, suggesting personal habits that are astonishingly weird, exaggerated beyond extreme, which is why they go to such extremes to keep them private and out of the public domain.  This film only feigns at what’s really going on under the surface, remaining largely a superficial glimpse of an obscure world, like Cyril the first time she discovers the presence of Alma in the house, “And who is this lovely creature making the house smell so nice?,” moving uncomfortably closer and actually soaking in her smell, describing the aromas with inscrutable detail.  While Woodcock is a puffed peacock of male arrogance and pride, Alma knows the pressure points to bring him down to size, relishing that time together, both drawn to one another like an intoxicating allure, yet those morning breakfasts still have a way of grating on Woodcock’s every last nerve, but he stomachs it, relinquishing a smidgen of control, knowing she is utterly devoted to him, a trustworthy partner, an equal in love, and a lifelong companion who will continually watch over him like the dead spirit of his mother, only Alma will be there to greet him every day, serving his every wish.  Probably Anderson’s most accomplished film since There Will Be Blood (2007), though still missing the fresh potency of his earlier films, in the end, with a lavish Max Ophüls style set design and swooning moods out of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940, whose wife was named Alma, by the way), this is just another old-fashioned love story.    


Shooting on the film ended the same day as the death of Jonathan Demme, a fellow film director, close friend and mentor who died from cancer. The film is dedicated to Demme. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Inherent Vice

INHERENT VICE          B-                
USA  (148 mi)  2014  d:  Paul Thomas Anderson         Official site

He is everything.  He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.  He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor…He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all.  He is a common man, or he could not go among common people.  He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job.  He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.  He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. . . . The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.

—Raymond Chandler essay, The Simple Art of Murder, 1944

Stoner silliness?  Is that enough for most movie audiences today?  David Gordon Green made a slip into these kinds of lame, air-headed pot movies with mixed results, as he discovered an entirely new mainstream audience that was willing to pay for the laughs while alienating his hard corps art film admirers who had been with him since the beginning.  Green, who created the prototype of American indie films with George Washington (2000) and ALL THE REAL GIRLS (2003) has returned to his roots of late, but not until after making a cash killing in Hollywood with the commercially successful PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2008).  Enter Paul Thomas Anderson, a heralded American director of some repute who has dazzled audiences with the likes of Magnolia (1999) and There Will Be Blood (2007), but has also disappointed many of his own followers with the rambling vacuousness of The Master (2012), a film that plunges over the edge into nothing of real significance, where there’s barely a hint of human drama holding our attention, yet it’s filmed in an epic style.  INHERENT VICE is a $20 – 30 million dollar picture (including an expensive awards campaign) that has barely generated $8 million dollars at the box office and garnered only two Oscar nominations, for writer/director Anderson in the Best Adapted Screenplay and also Best Costume Design.  All of Anderson’s pictures have moments of brilliance, where even if they tend to alienate the audience, a criticism of all his recent efforts, they are exceptionally well made and look positively terrific on the screen.  Adapted from the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, Anderson probably deserves special recognition for turning this seemingly impossible to film book into a motion picture, as nobody has turned a Pynchon book into a movie before, where he started working on a script in December 2010 while still working on The Master, developing several variations through a series of scripts, playing around with the idea of the narrator.  When the novel was released, one of the shortest and quickest written over the course of his entire career, it was advertised by the publisher as “part-noir, part-psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon—private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.” 

The free wheeling, drug-oriented style of the movie, which features more onscreen pot smoking since the Cheech & Chong movies of the 70’s and 80’s, but the zany irreverence expressed throughout is closer to John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), where the wisecracking and always quotable Kurt Russell is replaced by the counterculture world of residential pothead Joaquin Phoenix, the constantly high, smart aleck private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello living in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County in the 1970’s, where he seems defined by the expression, “What I lack in al-titude, I make up for in at-titude.”   Immersed in a world where he’s the center of a 40’s style, hard-boiled detective story, it feels like most of the film is taking place in the pot-induced fantasies of his head, where the wish fulfillment aspect is everpresent, as Doc is constantly in demand, for some reason, even by startlingly attractive ladies, though his inability to take anything seriously and his perpetual disinterest in the lives of others seems to define his warped aura of self-obsession and delusion.  Nonetheless, certainly part of the fun is just getting to know the Southern California landscape, where just the list of the character’s names feels like they could easily have been stolen from a Fu Manchu B-movie, and indeed the Chinese underworld, as expressed by a vast and secretive organization known as the Golden Fang, figures prominently here, where their reach spreads everywhere, into every dark corner of the film.  When Doc attempts to warn someone that “This is the Golden Fang you’re about to rip off here, man,” he’s startled by the dismissive nature of the reply, “That’s according to your own delusional system.”  What’s real and what isn’t?—it hardly matters in this sprawling universe of pop culture references, where Doc is a healthy mix of “The Dude” from the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) and Elliot Gould’s reinvented “Marlowe” from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Robert Altman’s subversive 70’s update of the conventional 40’s film noir.  Anderson’s drug-fueled detective story features psychedelic music and the grainy cinematography of Robert Elswit, who has shot every one of Anderson’s films, luring the audience into the near wordless, atmospheric mood with the extraordinary opening mix of CAN - Vitamin C - YouTube (3:32) and Can-Soup (Full Song) - YouTube (9:21).

Both hilarious and at times confounding, the film takes place in the fictional setting of Gordita Beach, a stand-in for Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon most likely lived in the late 60’s and early 70’s, lying on the south end of the Santa Monica Bay.  In 1970, Nixon’s in the White House, Ronald Reagan is Governor of California, while Charles Manson and his Helter Skelter cult of stoned-out groupies are about to go on trial for their hideous exhibition of mass murder.  Whatever lingering hopes might be left over from the peace and love generation of the 60’s have been brutally repressed by a crush of demonstrations, the arrests, killings, and near extinction of the Black Panther Party, a prolonged war overseas in Vietnam, and the prevalence of a law and order police state in Los Angeles. While the plot machinations are ridiculously circuitous, keeping the audience wondering just who Doc is working for, as he continues to get hired even while still working his previous cases, where the intertwining activity is simply off the charts and too much to keep up with, taking a page out of THE BIG SLEEP (1946), notorious for offering one of the most incomprehensible plots, as Doc just gets deeper and deeper into some big shit.  It all begins with the arrival of an ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), Inherent Vice - 'Shasta Fay' [HD (1:07), currently having an affair with a high profile real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), mostly seen on stupid-as-hell ads shown continuously on TV.  Word has it that Mickey’s British wife Sloane Wolfmann (Serena Scott Thomas) is having an affair of her own with international playboy-of-the-month Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson), where both have designs of scamming Mickey out of his money by having him committed to a mental asylum.  Meanwhile, local Black Nationalist Tariq Kahl (Michael Kenneth Williams) wants to hire Doc to recover money owed to him by one of Mickey’s white supremacist bodyguards, Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), in some unfinished business that goes back when both were in prison together.  When Mickey goes missing (along with Shasta) and Charlock ends up dead, his body laying next to Doc who wakes up after being knocked out cold, that makes him the principal suspect on the case, where he has to explain himself to Lieutenant Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), described by the narrator as “SAG member, John Wayne walk, flat top of Flintstone proportions and that evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations,” Doc’s right-wing, conservative counterpart on the LAPD, Inherent Vice "what's exactly the beef here" scene - YouTube (1:05), the man chiefly responsible for some serious police harassment, bad vibes and a cloud of paranoia hovering over Doc wherever he goes.  And if this was not enough, Doc is hired yet again by Hope Harlington (Jena Malone), a former heroin addict who wants her husband back, Coy (Owen Wilson), a sax player who feigned his death to avoid insurmountable debts, where a mysterious payment received “after” his death leads her to believe he is still alive. 

At two and a half hours, the screwball comedy of stoner noir is an unending labyrinth of joint smoking, wrong turns, near misses, and dumbfounding jokes and visual gags, but as long as the film is heading somewhere, following the neverending myriad of clues, an open-minded audience is willing to play along.  Perhaps the most peculiar variation from the novel is the use of a side character as the narrator, Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who barely figures in the story, but always seems to be around Doc’s residence on the beach, like an alternate consciousness that makes sure he’s all right.  Not only does she appear to have an all-knowing and omniscient eye, but a direct line to the author as well, as she continually speaks his voice.  While it sounds like a kind of updated hipster slang from Raymond Chandler, it’s curious that Doc and Elliot Gould as Marlowe both end up peeking into the private grounds of an upscale sanitarium in search of their missing men.  Both detectives make their best attempts to solve the unraveling mystery, but even with insider help from the District Attorney’s office from an old flame Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), Inherent Vice I wanted to see if you were free for dinner scene (47 seconds), it all remains wrapped in a mystery, where there’s no nice and tidy conclusion, which makes it a lengthy journey for little to no payoff.  The entire film feels like a lead-up to a signature event, always leading to this expected crescendo, after which it’s mostly a let down.  Shasta returns from out of the fog and somehow rekindles whatever’s left of their distant love affair.  While it’s blown up into giant-sized close ups, the tone of the entire film changes, as does the seriousness of the music, becoming overly symphonic and dramatically downbeat, while up until then the music had been nothing but playful and enjoyable.  By the time it winds down, however, there’s an overall impression that nothing throughout the entire film has been learned or taken seriously, as if that is emblematic of the stoner experience, where it’s not the destination but the journey that matters. (“What a long, strange trip it’s been.”)  For many that will be enough, kind of an updated and reinvented version of Easy Rider (1969) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), counterculture films that took us to the end of the road and left us there.  Defining films for a morally divided generation, both were significant as drifter road movies that expressed a general aimlessness of the times, where the music was the message, and they were powerful indictments of a fed-up dissatisfaction with the broken dreams of 60’s aspirations, the corruption of moral authority, and the co-opting of the American Dream.  INHERENT VICE is an adrenaline-laced, sarcastic sneer at a mixed up society of diametrically opposed values that is on the verge of losing its bearings and visibly crumbling to its feet, within a few years of actually kicking out a President, turning into a long, wayward adventure that meanders through the heart of recognizable cultural signposts and ends in a listless waft of smoke, becoming a drifting love story that doesn’t really matter at all, as the audience doesn’t care about the love angle or any of the sketchy and mostly undeveloped characters, where a Paul Thomas Anderson film once again makes a grand entrance with a fancy build-up before fading into the nothingness of The Master, where many may feel let down by the existential pointlessness of it all.