Tag: oscars

Phantom Thread


Phantom Thread (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Those expecting a typical love story set in 1950s London are certain to experience a shock when the plot takes an unexpected turn about halfway through this most beguiling picture involving a couturier (Daniel Day-Lewis) who falls for a simple waitress (Vicky Krieps). Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, master of capturing outer beauty in every seemingly ordinary setting down to the details of finest fabrics, crafts yet another project that is both deeply curious and entertaining without sacrificing an ounce of his vision.

One of its recurring themes is manipulation, real or imagined. Just as we get a sneaky feeling that dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock is more in love with the idea of Alma, what she represents as a woman, a product, and a muse, than he is in tune with the person who is willing to give her all in order for their relationship to subsist and thrive, Anderson creates a convincing charade that the story is just another posh period drama. In this way, it is playful, without becoming mean-spirited, and we cannot help but become engaged with the material since it is willing to evolve or veer off in another direction. The screenplay is loyal to its thesis despite the changes that occur.

The picture is admirable for its ability to take risks. Take note of the music, for example, in how it is almost always playing in the background even when a scene demands absolute silence. Thoughtful and observant viewers might wonder if the use of score is there to serve as distraction or meant to communicate sincerity. It comes across as though the music is another character for us to decipher like a ghost that lingers or thought left unexpressed. As proven by generic works helmed by less capable hands, allowing the score to go rampant creates an experience to be endured. Not here. We relish it, and it makes us wary.

It is no surprise that Day-Lewis provides yet another wonderful performance. He plays a renowned maker of clothes with a difficult personality, to say the least, but the performer finds numerous ways to keep us interested in Reynolds. For instance, Day-Lewis ensures that we trust in Reynolds’ mastery of his craft. We notice this in that way the actor touches the fabric; the handling of scissors, pins, measuring tapes; the looks given to a product that is slightly less than stellar. In order words, we are convinced of the character’s reputation and so, like those around him, we choose to stand by him, to study him.

The surprise, however, is Krieps who portrays Alma with great depth and empathy. Her face is so intriguing; in certain angles, she looks rather plain but she has a knack for changing her face just so in order to communicate precise thoughts and emotions. This trait, I think, will serve her well in character-driven pictures in which words are negligible. It goes without saying that Krieps is a performer to watch. She reminded me at times of a young Meryl Streep whose face is exotic, almost ghostly, but timeless.

I believe “Phantom Thread” is about possession. The couturier is possessed by his occupation, a need to create the best work for his consumer; the woman he invites into his home is possessed by the need to be loved, desired. And when their need to possess is not met, tension rises, boils over, causes a flood. And then there are those surrounding the couple. Through the clothing made specifically for them, the customers wish to possess either a lifestyle or, at the very least, a positive perception from those who see them wearing such high-end attire. This is a work to be relished, studied.

Manchester by the Sea


Manchester by the Sea (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Broken down to its most basic element, “Manchester by the Sea,” written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is about a man (Casey Affleck) who has not found a way to move on from a devastating family tragedy but somehow everyone else has. Lee’s every day existence is some form of self-punishment. There is no laughter in his home. He chooses not to make meaningful connections with anybody. Even as he walks around, it appears as though he is carrying the weight of the world. Here is a man who does not wish to continue living and yet he does, at least on the surface, until he is forced to face another tragedy: his brother (Kyle Chandler), not even fifty years of age, has passed away due to a rare heart condition.

For an observant picture in which characters grapple with the consequences of sudden deaths, it is refreshing that it is filled with humor, for better or worse. I admired that the material does not succumb completely to melodrama; notice that just about every other scene we encounter offers humor, whether it be due to the irony of a situation or a simple line uttered, the manner in which it is expressed. Although the subject matter is heavy, the writer-director is smart in choosing to allow his material to breathe. I found this true to life. When there is a death in the family—at least in my family—laughter and humor do not disappear from our lives. Life goes on, even the very next day, and laughter, in a way, revs up our engines so that everybody can move forward together.

Because life is particularly difficult to capture on screen, its approach of balancing humor amidst a death loses power at times. Particularly problematic are scenes involving Lee’s sixteen-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and his attempts to make it all the way with a band member. They pretend to do homework upstairs, in the bedroom, doors shut, while everybody knows, including the adults, what exactly it is they are doing. I found this situational humor, and others like it, too sitcom-like, contrived, straight off films with far less emotional power. And for a movie with a running time of around one hundred thirty minutes, trimming some of the fat might have made a leaner, stronger final product.

An alternative would have been to replace such scenes with more meaningful interactions between Lee and Patrick, their relationship so alive, engaging, and true. While they do argue a whole lot, Affleck and Hedges share strong, convincing chemistry. We believe they really are family—but one that isn’t necessarily close, rather forced into a situation where they must find a way to work together until details about guardianship, habitation, what to do with the boat, are ironed out.

The flashbacks, serving as contrast, between Lee and young Patrick are utilized well. These also give us glimpses of the late brother’s personality and how he is like in the face of tragedy. And so when people around town tell Lee how sorry they are for his loss and how his brother was a such a good guy, very warm and personable, we know exactly what they mean. We are reminded of the light that had gone out.

Another notable performance comes from Michelle Williams who plays Lee’s ex-wife. Her character is crucial to the picture because it shows that although people have found a way to move on from a tragedy, it does not mean they’ve forgotten or they’ve walked away unscathed. For Lee, this concept doesn’t quite click. And so he continues to live a life of solitude. We root for him to move on somehow, but we realize halfway through that maybe he isn’t capable. At least not yet—not within the scope of the film. I found myself thinking about Lee and where his life might be heading well after the move was over.

Whiplash


Whiplash (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Some movies leave you quiet when it ends because something deep inside you knows that you had seen something great. “Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is that kind of film. Its weapon: jazz music and inimitable performances by Miles Teller, who plays a first-year student at a music school known for being the best in the country, and J.K. Simmons, an instructor who recruits the freshman to be in his orchestra. Andrew and Fletcher, respectively, share a relationship to be remembered.

It is to be remembered because all of us are likely to have had a teacher who was tough, punctilious, a perfectionist. The material works as an exaggeration of such an idea. Imagine a glass of water with plastic tightly wrapped around its rim. With each passing scene, weight, never constant, is placed on top of that flimsy covering. There is genuine tension because we never know when the plastic can no longer support the pressure.

The verbal and psychological abuse that Andrew goes through is fascinating to watch unfold. I think it is meant to make us wonder how far we are willing to go, how much we are willing to sacrifice to become and to be considered great at what we do. But it is not just about willingness. Sometimes it is about having a tough skin. If one does not have it, better get one real quick because it is either sink or swim out there. Andrew’s goal is to become a great musician, to be remembered long after he is gone. He must seize and fight for what he wants, what he believes he is destined for.

There is a partnership between jazz music and the editing. A synergy is reached between them and what results is a series of images, many of them close-ups of the instruments and the highly physical act of drumming, coming across as music. There is a natural flow between the cuts, versatile in terms of whether the tempo is high or low, whether the energy is vibrant or soft. I am not a jazz aficionado but I felt like I knew more about the genre by the end or at least can appreciate it a little more because the picture actively welcomes the audience into the genre rather than remaining insular, too good for the common masses to be understood or appreciated.

Humorous and dramatic moments have a natural ebb and flow, too. This is where Simmons’ character is key and must be played exactly right. The performer embodies the character with unpredictable verve. In one scene, he is throwing verbal daggers left and right. In another, a more quiet menace is communicated. Notice his posture change in subtle ways when he is unimpressed. Pauses between the lines carry additional weight. What is he thinking when a musician is playing? How is he going to respond by the end of the piece? Will he even allow the piece to be played in its entirety? Not once did I feel like I knew him as a person, more like a figure to be respected, feared, or both.

“Whiplash” is a movie that should be remembered decades from now but I am somewhat doubtful whether it will be. It does not command a typical arc, expected character development, and feel-good messages about ambition and “reaching for one’s dreams.” But the lack of such qualities is exactly what I loved about it. We need and deserve more films of this caliber.

Zero Dark Thirty


Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Two years after the September 11 attacks in New York City, Maya (Jessica Chastain), an officer of the CIA, is sent to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan to work with another officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), who is charge of interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb), suspected to be connected to important Saudi terrorists. Torturing the detainee when he fails to cooperate, Dan and Maya eventually hear about a man named Abu Ahmed. Ammar claims that Abu Ahmed is a courier for Osama bin Laden. Other men who are questioned under similar conditions confirm this. Over the years, Maya devotes her life tracking this piece of information which inevitably leads to the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty” has received a lot of censure for supposedly endorsing torture by means of extracting information. This is most unfortunate because some of the bad press have convinced many not to see a quiet but incredibly thrilling film about a great manhunt that has lasted over a decade. As a film, not a collection of hard facts, “Zero Dark Thirty” commands elegance in characterization and construction of tension from gradual heat to a boil.

It is understandable that most will find themselves exasperated during the first half. Nothing much happens. At least not on the surface. And that is exactly what I liked about it. A recurring theme is the fact that gathering reliable and valid intelligence takes time. We are so used to amphetamine-fueled action movies involving the CIA and other government groups finding out all there is to know about everything and everyone in a matter of minutes that when something like this comes along, some of us do not know what to make of it. Plenty of names and technical terms bounce around our eardrums that all of them sound the same eventually. It is easy not to care until something goes boom!

The sudden bursts of violence break the slow stream of questions, muffled hopes, and quiet disappointments. One of the most chilling scenes, at least for me, is the bombing that takes place in a hotel. After the explosion and smoke starts to blend with dust, there is no score to suggest that something exciting is happening. No, music would have masked the tragedy that has happened. There are only screams of pain, disoriented people shuffling about and trying to get on their feet, a collective fear and confusion. Because it looks and feels so real, I found myself shaking and wanting to detach from the material but could not do so. I craved to know what will happen next.

Two women characters are given the chance to shine. There is Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), an officer in the embassy who we suspect might butt heads with Maya. She believes that money is so persuasive that even those who seem like they will never break from their ideologies will be enticed in the least. Her relationship with Maya is taken into an unexpected direction. Meanwhile, Chastain plays her character with the most convincing intelligence mixed with sophistication, resolve melded with obsession, and courage to push and demand others not to partake in a state of quiescence. Chastain’s scenes with Kyle Chandler, playing a CIA station chief, contain the right amount of balance between animosity and respect. When details get confusing, it is helpful that she is there to serve as our compass. Due to the nature of her job, it is necessary that she knows she is always right.

“Zero Dark Thirty” can be too cold at times given its procedural nature but this does not lessen the material’s power in any way. On the contrary, I respected the focus and vision from behind the lens like the raid scene shot in heavy darkness on purpose to prevent us from seeing anything concrete. In a way, it can be taken as the antithesis of a commercial action picture that glorifies violence where we are forced to see every chunk of tissue flying into the air.

Beasts of the Southern Wild


Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) live in a place called “The Bathtub,” nicknamed for the area’s tendency to flood when a storm and other natural disasters strike. Located south of the levee, their community is separated from modern society but this is not to suggest that their culture is less than. On the contrary, despite the poverty around them, they are a proud people with a knack for survival. While Hushpuppy and Wink have a fight due to the former causing a fire, huge chunks of ice in the Arctic, which happen encase giant prehistoric animals, melt and collapse. Aurochs tend to demolish everything that happens to be on their way and so the Louisiana bayou is under threat.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on the screenplay by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, is the kind of picture that our culture should be hungry for because it meshes reality and fantasy in such a way that is engaging, challenging, and worthwhile. If someone from a thousand years from now takes the time to watch this movie, I imagine that person being transported to the in-folds of time and dreams, a similar feeling that takes over my entire system each time I am engulfed in the imagination and ambition of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The celebration of life is the overarching theme that permeates through the collective lives of the bayou residents. Within the first ten minutes, it immerses us in life, from a crowd of excited people celebrating in the streets while fireworks brighten the dark skies, babies crying for attention, down to the manner in which the chickens cluck every other step and freshly caught crabs skitter about on their alien environment. Flooding us with a myriad of images so alive, it attempts to break down some of our notions about people living in squalor, mainly that they are unhappy and therefore must be pitied.

At the same time, the film is not afraid to deliver the unflinching reality of what it means to be economically marginalized. We watch Wink and Hushpuppy go about their usual days and wonder how they can subsist on what they have–or don’t have. When it rains, for instance, they do not even have a proper roof to keep all of the water out of their home. Further, the walls are so thin, the thunder sounds like a lion’s roar that is only a few feet away. When it is dark, close-ups are used more often to draw us into looking at their physicality and reading their conflicting thoughts through the emotions that have surfaced on their faces. Likewise, the wide shots are utilized wisely, usually in the daytime, in order to give us an idea of what the characters have to work with. And it isn’t much.

Under Benh Zeitlin’s careful direction, the symbolism in the film does not overpower the flow and rhythm of the story being told. For instance, the flood could have been so dramatized that at one point the focus might have shifted to the disaster instead of a six-year-old trying to make sense of what is going on. Instead, Hushpuppy wakes up one morning and mostly everything is submerged accompanied by an eerie quietness. It reminded me of my childhood growing up in the typhoon-magnet Philippines. A storm would rage overnight and when I woke up, I would step on my patio and notice that the streets would be blanketed by cream-colored water with current so powerful, moderately-sized trees would be carried downstream as if they were made out of plastic toys.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on Lucy Alibar’s play, offers something unique to the table and it is understandable why some might be at a loss on why it is special. Because our film culture, currently, is so inundated with the familiar, I think a lot of us have learned to expect less. I hope young people as well as future filmmakers will see this, be inspired, and follow by example: that it’s perfectly okay to color outside the lines, use nail polish instead of crayons, or perhaps tear up the pages altogether and make a collage instead.

Hugo


Hugo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lived in the walls of a train station with two jobs: winding the clocks that enabled the station to run smoothly and collecting pieces of machines required to fix an automaton that his father (Jude Law) left him before he died. Our young hero believed that the apparatus held a message from his father. But when a toy stand owner (Ben Kingsley) caught Hugo for stealing, his notebook, which contained instructions on how to properly fix the automaton, was confiscated. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the film had a firm handle on its visual effects by constructing a world so convincing, the opening shot in which the camera daringly explored the depth of space using 3D technology was completely mesmerizing. My eyes were fixed on the middle of the screen and I felt like the camera’s straight trajectory could go on for miles without sacrificing a pixel of its crispness. The strength of the picture relied on many consistently controlled visual trickery without coming off as too gimmicky. One excellent example was when we followed Hugo in the murky underground levels of the station, up a helix staircase, through giant machineries dancing in perfect rhythm, up until our protagonist stopped to admire the view of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, though, the picture had to focus on the story which was mixed bag. On one hand, I cared about Hugo. He was a kind person, a bit mousy and reticent, with a prodigious talent for fixing machines. Even though he had to steal things like food, we were on his side because his motivations were clear. We wanted to know the message hidden in the automaton and hoped that it would lead to Hugo no longer having to scavenge, as a rat would, on a daily basis. With the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the toy stand owner’s goddaughter who craved a bit of adventure, the duo dove into an investigation about the message of the automaton and how the two of them were connected. Their research forced them to cross paths with the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), always on the lookout for homeless children to send to the orphanage. It was enjoyable to watch because as Hugo and Isabelle moved from one area to another, the special and visual effects worked on the background which underlined the magic of their journey. On the other hand, the picture had a lesson about film preservation. While I support the idea of protecting old movies from wear and destruction, I found it to be too cloying. Since the issues that the latter half of the picture brought up were so important, Hugo’s story felt small in comparison. While the images were still sophisticated and pleasurable, especially for cinephiles who love old movies, I wanted to know more about the boy and how he planned to move on from the train station if things didn’t work out as he hoped. The character called Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a librarian, was greatly underused. He seemed to have developed an interest in Hugo, maybe as a protégé or a son, but the scenes the two had together felt underwritten. Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo,” like the automaton it featured, looked fantastic but the inside didn’t feel complete. It worked as a sensory experience but not an emotional or cerebral one. A mark of a great film touches more than one camp.

Gladiator


Gladiator (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

When the emperor of Rome (Richard Harris) was murderered by his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the Roman empire, wanted to honor the dying man’s wishes by helping the empire turn into a republic again. This didn’t sit well Commodus because he craved for power and wanted to prove that he would be a great ruler by leading a dictatorship. The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t impressed with it. I thought the story was all over the place, the characters were simplified for the sake of being commercial, and there were a handful of glaring idioms that did not fit for its time (it was set in year 180). While I think that those flaws are still applicable, I found myself liking the movie the second time around for two reasons: this role being one of Crowe’s more moving performances and the intense action sequences. Without a doubt, the picture relied too much on the battles in the colosseum to generate some sort of tension. However, it was effective because we like the characters fighting for their lives such as the friends/fellow slave-turned-gladiators (Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller) who Maximus met along his journey. I caught myself voicing out my thoughts such as “Hurry up and get up!” and “Watch out for that tiger!” No matter how much I tried, there was no way I could have kept quiet because I just had to release some of the stress I felt at the time. I also enjoyed watching Oliver Reed as the man who owned the gladiators; I found his past interesting and I wished the film had explored him more because he could have been a strong foil for Maximus. The scenes they had together were powerful because they respected each other but at the same time they didn’t want too be friendly because, after all, one was “owned” by another. Another relationship worth exploring was between the late emperor and Maximus. They treated each other like father and son but it felt too superficial, too planned. Commodus would walk in on them and feel jealous and unloved. But what else? “Gladiator,” directed by Ridley Scott, was loved by many because everything was grand and it wore its emotions on its sleeve. However, I’m still not convinced that it is Best Picture material because it often chose the obvious over the subtle path too frequently. For a sword-and-sandals epic with a two-and-a-half hour running time, while the action scenes were highly entertaining, there was no excuse for a lack of depth involving most if not all the characters. Therefore, as a revenge picture, it didn’t quite reach its potential.