Reviews

Review: Phantom Thread

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps, Richard Graham, Camilla Rutherford, Harriett Sansom Harris
Released: February 1, 2018
Grade: A

Phantom Thread
Before we get to the content of the film itself, Phantom Thread has made its fair share of news in Hollywood.  In June last year, Daniel Day-Lewis released a statement saying that he “will no longer be working as an actor” and that “neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on the subject.”  Despite being just 60 years of age and the only male in history to win 3 Oscars for best leading actor, he had made the decision to retire.  Phantom Thread would be our last chance to see him on screen.

The film also generated fresh publicity when the Academy Award nominations were announced last Tuesday.  Despite being overlooked by most Oscar pundits and predictors, it surprised many when it picked up a slew of nominations including best picture, best director, best actor and best supporting actress.  It’s worth noting that only 3 movies received more nominations – The Shape of Water, Dunkirk and Three Billbords Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  It’s clear that members of the Academy like this film.

I’m not sure all members of the public will feel that way.  Despite my adoration of the movie and director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), this is an unconventional romantic drama that doesn’t play out in a way you will expect.  The film is set in 1950s London and largely revolves around just three characters.

Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is an acclaimed fashion designer and “confirmed bachelor”.  It seems every woman wants to wear his beautiful dresses whether they are members of the royal family or high-profile socialites.  Cyril Woodcock (Manville) is his hard working sister who acts as both his business manager and personal assistant.  She takes care of all the awkward, messy stuff so as not to disrupt her brother’s creative freedom.  Alma Elson (Krieps) is the newest arrival in the household and the latest in Reynolds’ revolving turnstile of girlfriends.  Unlike others, she isn’t afraid to stand up to Reynolds and she becomes a trusted, valuable muse.

Phantom Thread is an engrossing character study as we watch all three individuals try to gain the upper hand in his curious household.  The power changes throughout and you’re never quite sure how it will all end up.  I don’t know his secret but Paul Thomas Anderson has a knack for bringing out the best in any actor.  He’s done that again here by working with Day-Lewis for the second time (after There Will Be Blood) and newcomers to the Anderson fold, Lesley Manville (Another Year) and Vicky Krieps (A Most Wanted Man).

I’m being cryptic regarding the narrative as it’s the kind of movie where the less you know going in, the better.  Reynolds is such a fascinating person.  He comes across as so calm but also so intimidating.  You never know what he’s thinking which is quite scary.  It’s hard to pick a highlight but there are some great scenes shared around the breakfast table that illustrate the power struggle whilst also providing a few laughs when it comes to “breakfast etiquette”.

With plenty to digest upon leaving the theatre, Phantom Thread is another feather in the cap for Paul Thomas Anderson.

 

Review: I, Tonya

Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser
Released: January 25, 2018
Grade: B

I, Tonya
I’m old enough to remember the tale of Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and “the incident”.  I was 16 years of age and the news stories were too crazy to ever be forgotten.  That said, could I precisely tell you how events unfolded, who knew what, and who was found responsible?  The answer is no.  It’s why we so often use the adage “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”  Truth took a backseat as gossip and the 24-hour news cycle took over.

Those hoping to see what actually transpired by watching I,Tonya will be disappointed.  In putting together the script, writer Steven Rogers conducted extensive interviews with both Tonya Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.  Their version of events differed so wildly that he tried to incorporate both into his screenplay.

The end result is a movie that is part comedy, part drama and part mockumentary.  Rogers allows the real-life individuals to tell their stories… through the actors that portray them on the screen.  From the very opening scene, we see Tonya and Jeff, played by Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan, arguing into the camera arguing about what took place.  Also adding their two cents are Tonya’s mother (Janney), her ice skating coach (Nicholson), a sports journalist (Cannavale) and an incompetent bodyguard (Hauser).

Interwoven within these fake interviews are the film’s dramatic elements – a re-enactment of what took place (depending on who you believe).  The first hour focuses on Tonya’s early years.  We learn that she had a tough upbringing and an even tougher mother who was determined to see her daughter become a champion figure skater.  The second hour takes us into the lead up of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games where her rivalry with fellow U.S. athlete Nancy Kerrigan went more than few steps too far.

Brought to the screen by Australian director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), I, Tonya deserves credit for getting its message across in an unorthodox manner.  It’s framed as a dark comedy with the film skilfully winning laughs while tackling confronting subject matters such as domestic violence.  Not everyone will see the lighter side and it’s likely to be divisive.  For me, the most interesting observation is the way in which truth and fiction have blended together when it comes to Tonya Harding.  It’s as if we don’t want to know reality because it may be less interesting that the myth that has evolved.

Above all else, Margot Robbie is the reason the film should be seen.  The 27-year-old Australian actress was raised on a farm in Dalby, Queensland and was unheard of 5 years ago.  Now, she’s just picked up her first Academy Award nomination for her great performance.  As we’ve seen in The Wolf of Wall Street, Suicide Squad and now I, Tonya, she’s an versatile actress who can adapt to any role.  She may not have done all the skating in the movie but it sure looks like it!

The film isn’t without its problems.  I’m perplexed as to why Allison Janney is the frontrunner to win best supporting actress at the Oscars in early March.  She’s clearly having fun playing Tonya’s super villainous mother but it’s a one-note character that doesn’t show any regret.  For this reason, you never fully understand why she’s the way she is.  The screenplay also struggles to maintain momentum.  We get a clear picture of the characters during the opening half-hour and things don’t change much after that.  Aside from the bizarre “incident”, Harding doesn’t seem to be interesting enough to warrant a full two-hour movie.

Shot on a budget of just $11 million USD, I, Tonya strives for gold but will have to settle for silver.

 

Review: The Commuter

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, Ryan Engle
Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill
Released: January 18, 2018
Grade: C

The Commuter
We’re only a few weeks into 2018 but I’m comfortable in saying that The Commuter is one of the worst action films of the year.  It marks the fourth collaboration between Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra and actor Liam Neeson.  Unknown was about a guy with amnesia who had his identity stolen.  Non-Stop was about an alcoholic air marshal aboard a hijacked flight.  Run All Night was about a hitman called out of retirement to protect his son.

If you think those storylines are over-the-top, wait until you see what’s been manufactured with The Commuter.  Liam Neeson plays Michael – a successful, hardworking insurance salesman with a loving wife back home.  Scratch that.  He’s unexpectedly fired in one of the film’s opening scenes.  With his son is about to head off to an expensive college, he’s got no idea how he’ll be able to pay the tuition fees and all the other bills that will soon mount up.

It’s at this point where the mayhem begins.  Michael is on the same train he’s caught to work every day for the past ten years and is approached by a mysterious woman (Farmiga).  She cryptically tells him that “someone on this train does not belong” and if he can find out who the person is before the train reaches its final destination, he’ll be rewarded with $100,000.  If he tells anyone about the task or alerts the authorities, his family will be in jeopardy.  She provides no meaningful information aside from that.  We don’t even know what the person looks like or what they’re hiding.

After quietly walking around the train and narrowing the list of suspects (based on the ticket stubs protruding from their seats), he starts asking a few questions.  It’s not long before pandemonium breaks out with everyone looking at Michael as if he’s some kind of deranged lunatic (deservedly so) and the incompetent security being called in.  He finds a way to avoid being captured so as to continue with his investigative work.

I love a good action-thriller but the content of this film doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It’s hard to believe how those behind the assignment are smart enough to create this elaborate task (complete with a bizarre hit and run) and yet they can’t figure out the identity of the person themselves.  It’s also a struggle to comprehend how everyone on the train remains on board despite Michael’s actions.  They keep talking to him too!

I won’t spoil the finale but it’s best to lower your expectations with The Commuter.  There’s no cool, original twist that justifies the tiring opening hour.  There’s just more farce and more unrealistic plot developments.  Liam Neeson recently announced that he’s retiring from action movies and whilst it’s been a fun ride (some of his movies have been great), it’s sad that he’ll be finishing on such a lacklustre note.

 

Review: Sweet Country

Directed by: Warwick Thornton
Written by: David Tranter, Steven McGregor
Starring: Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Trevon Doolan, Matt Day, Ewen Leslie
Released: January 25, 2018
Grade: A-

Sweet Country
Currently held in Brisbane, the Asia Pacific Screen Awards honour the best films and performances from the Asia-Pacific region.  In their brief 11 year history, two movies from Australia have taken the honour for best feature film – Samson & Delilah in 2009 and Sweet Country in 2017.  It’s an amazing fact that both were directed by Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton.  He’s not as widely known by the public as a George Miller, Baz Luhrmann or Gillian Armstrong but he will go down in history as one of Australia’s best directors.

Sweet Country has an interesting background.  David Tranter is an Australian sound recordist who has worked on a number of short films, TV movies and television shows over the past decade.  He’s known Thornton since they were kids growing up in Alice Springs and, drawing on stories passed down through his family, suggested the idea of the movie several years ago.  Despite having no experience as a screenwriter, he worked with Steven McGregor (Redfern Now) to put a script together.  Thornton loved the finished product and the film was put into production not long after.

Set in the 1920s, there’s no obvious protagonist in the film during the opening half hour.  We drift between characters and learn that the Australian outback was a rough, tough place.  There’s a quiet, lonely farmer (Neill) trying to make ends meet.  There’s an Indigenous man (Morris) and his wife who help tend the farm and are well compensated.  There’s a World War I veteran (Leslie) who has moved into the area and is quick to assert his authority.  There’s a young boy (Doolan) from a tough upbringing who yearns for a better life.   There’s a police sergeant (Brown) who enjoys a drink and tries to maintain law and order.

The narrative becomes clearer when someone is killed.  Without giving too much away, a “white fella is shot by a black fella”.  The racial tensions within the community explode and it forces some characters to flee whilst others go chasing after them.  For many in the town, the truth as to what actually took place is irrelevant.  A white man has been killed and they’re ready to dish out a violent brand of justice at any cost.

Described as Australian’s equivalent of an iconic American western, Sweet Country is a gripping, moving drama that pulls back the curtain on a darker chapter in our history.  The likes of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown give the film some star power but it’s the Indigenous cast members, all of whom are non-professional actors, who make the biggest impact.  It’s hard not to feel empathy for their plight.

Thornton shot the film just outside of Alice Springs and makes great use of the dry, desolate landscape.  There’s a scene involving Bryan Brown on a long, flat plain that exemplifies this most.  I also liked the use of quick “flash forwards” to give us a glimpse of what lies ahead.  It will keep audiences on their toes and is a pleasant breakaway from the traditional model where a film opens with the full ending and then takes us back to how we got there.

With a few unexpected twists, Sweet Country is a great slice of Aussie cinema.

 

Review: The Post

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford
Released: January 11, 2018
Grade: B+

The Post
Steven Spielberg has made a bunch of movies that have covered a wide range of subject matters and genres.  He may not have known it when he signed up for it at the start of 2017 but The Post comes along at an important time given the pressure currently being applied on the media by President Donald Trump.  The term “fake news” is part of common vernacular.

Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Spotlight), the film is set over a few days in 1971 when those at The Washington Post had a big decision to make.  One of their major competitors, The New York Times, had been provided with classified military documents that showed the U.S. Government had been lying for decades about its involvement in the Vietnam War.  These documents became known as the Pentagon Papers.

After months of careful analysis, The New York Times went public in June 1971.  They published a series of front page articles that were highly critical of the government.  This infuriated President Richard Nixon who successfully sought a court injunction to prevent any further release of the leaked information until it could be settled in the Supreme Court.

It was at this time that The Washington Post, through the work of their own investigative journalists, came into possession of the same papers.  What followed was an intense debate about what to do next.  The role of a newspaper is to keep people informed and to hold people to account.  If they sat on this information and did nothing, were they really doing the right thing by the American people?  However, if they did go public, they ran the risk of a lawsuit or, even worse, imprisonment.

We see things from a number of perspectives in this huge ensemble.  Meryl Streep plays the head of the paper who is worried about her family’s legacy and the long-term future of the paper.  Tom Hanks plays an executive editor who is keen to make his mark and outsmart his competitors.  Bob Odenkirk plays a journalist who battles the clock in recovering the papers and writing a story.  Bradley Whitford plays a board member at The Washington Post who believes the recent listing of the company on the stock exchange could be in jeopardy.

There’s no arguing that this is a Steven Spielberg film.  As tends to be his style, he’s pushing an agenda quite forcefully on the audience.  This will work for some but will annoy others.  As an example, there’s a scene late in the movie where a young woman thanks Meryl Streep’s character for being a pioneer when it comes to women in senior workplace roles.  I don’t disagree with that message… but it didn’t need to be reiterated.  It’s obvious from everything that preceded it.  The film also has a few too many grand speeches and so the dialogue feels more forced than natural.

That’s not to say this isn’t an important movie.  It’s a fascinating tale that highlights the need for a strong media and how they should serve the people and not the government.  It touches on workplace dynamics and the additional challenges faced by a female CEO in the 1970s.  It looks at the difficulty of journalists being objective in their reporting when they’re good friends with their subject matter.  They’re all topics which have equal relevance today.  An added touch is we see how papers were typeset and printed each night without the benefit of digital technology.  It’s cool.

They’re two iconic American actors but The Post marks the first time that Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks have appeared opposite each other on screen.  Both give strong performances with illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of their respective characters.  Streep is particularly good as the vulnerable head of the paper who realises that she’s out of her depth but isn’t quite sure who’s advice she should be taking.

Likely to be mentioned several times when the Academy Award nominations are announced in two weeks, The Post is good (but perhaps not great) cinema.

 

Review: The Shape of Water

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richards Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Released: January 18, 2018
Grade: B+

The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is described on the Internet Movie Database as – “In a 1960s research facility, Elisa, a mute janitor, forms a relationship with a mysterious aquatic creature.”  I’ve provided this simple plot overview to friends and have received many puzzled looks in return.  It sounds bizarre on paper but it’s being pitched as an “adult fairy tale” so you don’t need to stress about everything making sense.

That’s probably a good thing because there are questions asked in The Shape of Water which are not answered.  To start out with, where did this human-like sea creature come from?  It’s clearly a major discovery but those at the top-secret military facility are unsure what to do with the “asset”.  Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) is a scientist who wants to study the creature but on the flip side, the security team headed by Richard Strickland (Shannon) thinks it best that it be killed.

It’s the actions of these two characters which are the most difficult to reconcile.  Strickland gets a surprisingly large amount of screen time as the film’s keynote villain.  We even follow him to his home and get a glimpse of his family.  Why he has no interest in the creature and its potential scientific value is odd.  That said, at least we know what he wants.  Dr Hoffstetler has a softer side but I never fully understood how he reached his position on certain issues (without giving too much away).

Where the film succeeds is the exploration of the relationship that develops between the creature and Elisa Esposito, a cleaner (Hawkins) who has been a mute all of her life.  She lives alone, has few friends and whilst she puts up a brave face, you get a clear sense that she’s frustrated by her disability.  It’s hard to make new friends and fall in love when you have no voice.

That helps explain her attraction to the sea creature.  She meets it while cleaning its laboratory and with both of them unable to speak, they communicate using expressions and hand gestures.  The creature shows remarkable intelligence and it’s not long before they form a close bond.  However, when she learns that her newfound love is to be killed, she calls in favours from a fellow cleaner (Spencer) and her next-door neighbour (Jenkins) to help save his life.

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro has never been a conventional filmmaker.  We’ve seen from the likes of Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak that he has a rich, vivid imagination that creates beautiful cinematic worlds.  That’s again the case here.  The Shape of Water is a wild ride that provides many unexpected, eye-raising moments.  The opening scene with Sally Hawkins in the bathtub is a great example.  The film score of Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel), which features both light and dark moments, is a perfect fit for the material.

Whilst I love what he’s trying to achieve, some of the subplots didn’t resonate.  There’s a storyline that involves the next-door neighbour, his work and unrequited love but it feels inferior to the main show.  The same applies for Dr Hoffstetler and his connection with others outside the laboratory.  These narratives didn’t hit me emotionally.

Given the film has been nominated for 7 Golden Globe nominations and a bunch of other critics prizes, I’ll admit to being in the minority with my lukewarm response.  Perhaps another viewing is in order.