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.
Inherent Vice (2014)
★ / ★★★★
If I were to jot down the positive qualities that “Inherent Vice” had, the page would be close to blank. With a running time of two and a half hours, it feels significantly, tortuously longer because the screenplay and direction by Paul Thomas Anderson fail to engage the viewers in such a way that it makes a drug-fueled underworld look like a bloody automobile accident one could not help but watch.
Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a licensed private investigator who decides to ask questions after his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance. The last time they spoke to one another, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) confessed that she has been made aware of a scheme that involves two people wanting to send the man she is currently seeing—a major league real estate figure—to a mental hospital. Sportello becomes a suspect when he is found by the cops, led by Lieutenant Detective Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), regaining consciousness next to a corpse in the middle of the desert.
Not for one second is the protagonist a convincing investigator. Superficially, we observe him floating from one connection after another, often addicted to drugs themselves, but he does not ask enough probing questions—questions that incite reaction or any surprising insight about the mystery at hand. Oftentimes the characters engage in whispers and mumblings—the camera real close to their faces—so low-key that the scenes become bland, boring, soporific, so dragged on that the running time becomes unjustified.
The material neglects to give us a good reason why we should care about the detective or the missing girl. Their relationship is not anything special. One can argue that they do not even have a relationship to begin with—at least one that is deep or lasting. Sportello comes across as lazy, dirty, deadly dull when interacting with others. Other than the one scene that sets up the story, we learn not one interesting thing about Shasta. I would like to personally ask the director why he thinks this story is worth telling.
This is a film teeming with caricatures, not real people. This would not have been a problem if the material consistently made an active attempt to criticize a particular time, place, group people, or way of thinking. But the picture is not a criticism of anything—not through comedy, satire, or condemnation. It is a straight-faced drama with no marrow to it. Thus, what results is a one-dimensional dross with actors in it who utter lines but they themselves look like they have no idea what the movie is attempting to accomplish.
People will defend this movie for its brazen insularity. They are entitled to do that. Not me. I could not go up to someone, genuinely tell them that it is worth seeing, and feel good about it. A movie can be inaccessible emotionally or intellectually, maybe both, yet still offer a great experience through, for example, visual artistry or how the work tends to stick to the viewer’s brain long afterwards.
I understood “Inherent Vice,” based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, on the basis of what it tries to accomplish, but I wished that the writer-director understood the importance of translating a book to the screen. Some might say one has to read the book first and then watch the movie so the work can be understood. Wrong. It is most critical that the material be digestible through a cinematic experience. Otherwise, why spend millions of dollars to make something that gives nothing yet steal everybody’s time?
Master, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran, struggles to find his place after the war. Dipsomania as baggage, he is unable to keep a job: first as a portrait photographer then as a cabbage farmer. After another night of binge drinking, he ends up on a yacht rented by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a mysterious philosophical movement called The Cause, for the duration of his daughter’s wedding. Dodd feels a deep connection with Freddie almost immediately, insisting that they had met prior but cannot remember the exact circumstances, so he invites the barely functioning alcoholic to join the group.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master” keeps us wondering what exactly is going on, but it is ultimately a frustrating experience to endure because its content and execution are both so oblique, they never reach the synergy that is necessary for us to have a firm grip on the characters and their own definitions of reality. What could have been an analysis of two extremes–one a slave to his affliction, the other a slave to his delusion–ends up becoming an arrhythmic dance around the fire. It showcases two fiery performances but the hullabaloos are as empty as a drum.
Phoenix and Hoffman feed off each other’s energies. What Freddie and Dodd have is explored via a master-follower relationship as well as a father-son relationship though to a lighter degree. Even fainter is a homosexual undertone. The most memorable scenes involve their characters simply sitting across from one another and ascertaining what the other can offer. Despite Freddie’s alcoholism and Dodd’s charlatanism, not once do we forget that they are intelligent men, so often lost in their own thoughts, with something big to lose and equally momentous to gain. The push and pull between them, as well as the forces around them, makes a compelling watch even though the camera at times cannot stay still when the decibels of the men’s voices reach another level of intensity.
Freddie captured my interest because he reminded me of an abused dog my family adopted when I was a kid. This dog barked and snarled every time someone was near. She would be quiet only when she saw food about to be delivered to her bowl. We had this dog for three or four years and not once did I feel comfortable approaching her or calling her name. I pet her head about twice or thrice and even then I reached out my hand with the most reluctance. Freddie is the same: he has so much anger and personal demons that it is almost impossible to like him. He is fascinating as a specimen but getting close to him is a willful act of setting one’s self up for certain disappointment. I never loved that dog. I disliked having her as a part of a family so much, I thought about maybe “accidentally” leaving the gates open so she would be tempted to run in the street and never come back.
The screenplay is not mindful of its gaps in time. Instead of being in the moment, part of our attention is dedicated to determining how much time has passed since Event C now that Event M is happening. For instance, Freddie has fallen in love with a sixteen-year-old high school student named Doris (Madisen Beaty) before he is sent to war. Some years later, he returns to a reality that we have long come to expect. This romantic strand is a would-be reminder that the protagonist, though hardened, is neither incapable of feeling nor unwilling to open up. For a film with such ambition, it comes off pedestrian. The yearning feels phony and stale. There is a glaring lack of momentum in the unspooling of the events. It is exhausting to sit through.
At least “The Master” gets into some detail about The Cause’s methods and ideologies, from the hypnotherapy sessions designed to recall one’s memories in his or her past lives to believing that the world has existed for trillions of years. Its 1950 milieu is also very convincing, its wide shots accompanied by sparse but memorable score by Jonny Greenwood. However, as hard as I tried, I could not connect with it fully. It tells us a lot but at the same time it does not. I do not like puzzles that are puzzling for the sake of puzzlement.
★★★★ / ★★★★
John (John C. Reilly) is sitting outside a diner with hands in his face when Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) comes up to him and offers coffee. John accepts and we learn that the reason why he looks so hopeless is because he lost all his money. John’s good intentions impresses Sydney. That is, John had wanted to win enough money so he can give his mother a proper funeral. Sydney, a man of experience, decides to teach John some tricks in exploiting the casino’s loopholes.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “Hard Eight” may be a small film but it is equipped with big guns: a confident, fast-paced, and focused direction; a wonderful ear for dialogue; and characters who continually reveal layers of personalities and histories.
I expected the film to be about John because he is the protégé as well as the first person the camera fixates on. It turns out that while he remains an important figure in the storyline, it is really more about Sydney and how much he grows to love John like flesh and blood. To complicate the plot, right after Sydney teaches John the first lesson in outsmarting the casinos, the picture jumps two years forward. Not only are John and Sydney slightly different from the time we meet them, there are two new characters: Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), John’s sort-of girlfriend for two months, and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), John’s friend that Sydney doesn’t particularly like.
We are expected to learn about the four and how their relationships change the dynamics of the situation. Hall delivers an incredible performance. In a lot of ways, he reminded me of my grandpa: tough, suave, mostly quiet but very capable of warmth and support. Every time he is on screen, I was drawn to him and he doesn’t have to say a word.
There is a scene in a shabby hotel room where panic-stricken Reilly and Paltrow are on the foreground yet I kept noticing Hall on the background, just standing there, completely calm, while his face is drowned in shadows. In each scene, I felt him observing and thinking what he might do next. He never becomes predictable.
In most movies that aim to tackle special relationships between a parent and his or her non-biological child, there comes an obligatory scene where the former tells the latter, “I love you like you’re my own.” I almost always roll my eyes or end up stifling a snicker. It has turned so cheesy, so passé. But not here. I completely bought the set-up and delivery. During that scene, I relished every emotion on Sydney and John’s faces, held my breath at every pause, and found it hard to swallow because I was so moved. The moment is earned.
“Hard Eight,” also known as “Sydney,” is a gem and I’m astounded that it’s Anderson’s first feature film. By the end, it accomplishes two things. 1) It kept me interested in what would happen next. 2) Somehow, I couldn’t think of one thing I would change to make it better.
Boogie Nights (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was spotted by a pornographic film director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) while working as a busboy in a disco. Eddie, after running away from home, decided to work for Jack, changed his name to Dirk Diggler and instantly became an adult film star in the late 1970s. At first, everything seemed to be going well: Dirk’s well-endowed tool skyrocketed him to stardom, he made some good-natured friends (Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the ideas he shared with Jack in order to make the exotic pictures they made together even better earned Dirk awards, money and recognition. But in the 1980s, everything came crashing down as he chose his pride over people that took care of him when he was at his lowest, became addicted to drugs and resulted to prostitution to finance his addiction. I was impressed with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant control over his material. It could easily have been sleazy because of its subject matter but I was happy he treated his subjects with utmost respect. Anderson may have highlighted his characters’ many negative traits but he made them as human and relatable as possible. His decision to underline the negative aspects of the pornographic industry not only was the driving force of the drama but it also prevented the picture from glamorizing its many lifestyles. It made the argument that the porno stars were sad, desperate and that most of them wouldn’t choose the industry if they knew how to do anything else well or if they had the means to reach for their goals. For instance, Don Cheadle’s character did not have the financial means to start his own business so he used the industry to have some sort of leverage. Details like that made me care deeply for the characters. Their careers didn’t have to be honorable but, like us, they did what they have to do in order to get by. However, I wished the movie could have at least acknowledged the role of sexually transmitted diseases in the industry. I know that the idea was not yet popular at the time but some hint of it could have added another dimension to the script. Furthermore, I found William H. Macy’s character to be one of the most fascinating of the bunch but he wasn’t fully explored. With a wife that so openly cheated on him (she had a penchant for having sex in public), we saw that he was a pushover. But what else was he? I felt like he was merely a joke, a punchline and that stood out to me because, even though others had something peculiar about them, they had layers and complexity. “Boogie Nights” surprised me in many ways because I didn’t expect it to have so much heart and intelligence. It certainly changed the way I saw pornographic material and, more importantly, the people that starred in them.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Adam Sandler should star in more movies like this one because it’s a nice break from his monotonous, painfully obvious and predictable slapstick comedies. “Punch-Drunk Love,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, was about a small business owner named Barry Egan (Sandler) who fell for his sister’s co-worker (Emily Watson) after one of his seven sisters (Mary Lynn Rakskub) set him up because the sister claimed he lacked initiative. Meanwhile, Barry was caught up in a scam, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, after he called a phone-sex line. I loved the movie’s dry sense of humor and lack of sentimentality. The romance between Sandler and Watson was offbeat at best; it was difficult to see what they liked about one another because both were so strange. Even though I did not necessarily relate with Barry, I was fascinated with his behavior when things were calm and the way he responded to certain stimuli. He was unpredictable. When challenged, he would either go on scary fits of violent rage or would run away like a mouse. I wanted to know if he had bipolar disorder or whether he just did not have a healthy outlet to release the frustrations he had about his life, especially the annoyances from her overbearing sister. I found Barry’s sister absolutely hilarious but I think if she was my sister, I would just go crazy. Furthermore, I liked how Anderson portrayed what family gathering was really like. In more mainstream projects, members of the family would sit on a table and have hush-hush conversations as the camera focused on the key characters. In this film, everyone gossiped, insulted each other insidiously, laughed at the top of their lungs to the point where one could barely hear his or her own thoughts. The scene was plagued with a loud buzzing sound which caught my attention because it was realistic. I wish the picture had more scenes with the family because it was a nice change of pace from Barry’s isolated space which had a lot of gloom. “Punch-Drunk Love” showcases Sandler’s acting muscles and I was happy to see that he tried to do something different. I did not expect that he was able to go head-to-head with Hoffman because Hoffman had such a presence about him in all of his roles. I expect that a lot of Sandler’s fans would find this movie somewhat distasteful because its humor almost always stemmed from self-loathing and repressed emotional problems which–let’s admit–can be depressing at times. However, I think it’s a smart movie that is willing to look beyond the idiosyncracies of its characters and focus on their more compelling angles.