In the case of impresario P.T. (Anderson, that is) and the greatest sew-man of posh 1950’s London, the peculiar and perversely romantic Phantom Thread (B+) raises sartorial obsession to high art and establishes an arch melodrama out of the romantic embellishments that temper a tempest. Daniel Day-Lewis is the mercurial fashion designer at the film’s center, and it’s another performance for the ages as he charms and disarms every person who dares disturb his perfectly tailored existence. Vicky Krieps is a revelation as the woman drawn in to tame the beast with her own wily techniques. She’s breathtaking in the role, as is Leslie Manville as the couturier’s equally controlling sister. It’s a slow burn of a character study before Anderson’s poison pen careens a plunging plotline into the fore, leaving everyone involved on pins and needles. The production design, including lavish gowns and lush countrysides, is hypnotizing, and Jonny Greenwood’s nourish score hauntingly gorgeous. Anderson’s film is sure to be polarizing, as its central relationship mushroom clouds into droll extremes; but for those seeking an oddball odyssey into human fixations, it’s a stunner.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post (B-) is a movie about newspapers that buries the lede. After a painfully languid first 80 minutes in which the director simply fetishizes his faithful art direction of 1970s D.C., this historical drama culminates in a corker of a close that affirms faith in the free press and reveals an inspiring reluctant heroine. The rousing finish, punctuated with an obligatory back shelf John Williams score, feels somewhat unearned due to a series of lazy first and second act episodes that simply don’t zero in on the trajectory. In fact, there are three sequences so awkwardly written about characters reminiscing while sitting that I almost wondered if the master visual director had forgotten that it’s often more effective to show than tell (Oh, I get it – this is a staged reading of a movie!) In a plot that can be described as The Washington Post editorial team’s quest to publish secret government documents vital to the national interest – The Pentagon Papers – under threat of ruining its publisher’s family business or simply the pre-Watergate prequel to All the President’s Men, it’s a love letter to unfettered journalism and the rise of a strong woman. Tom Hanks as the editor gives a workmanlike performance; but as embodied in the story arch of publisher and guardian of the family business, Meryl Streep’s discovery of her courage is rather thrilling. The movie’s depiction of the printing press itself is a fun part of the ultimate action, filmed fondly like the Titanic or another vessel of a bygone era. But it seems Spielberg is too often a raider of a lost art, relying on old-fashioned and obvious tropes. The film wants above-the-fold grandeur but is relegated to Section B (minus).
A love that dare not speak its name gets its most magnificent due in an uncommonly affecting and breathtaking new film. Director Luca Guadagnino’s idyllic, romantic coming of age drama Call Me by Your Name (A) transports viewers to 1983 Northern Italy and, despite its foreign film aesthetic and slow burn pacing, presents a truly accessible story of summer love and its lifelong consequences. The character peculiarities and specificity of the time and place breathe a special life force into the proceedings. The likability, charm, intelligence and wit of the movie’s protagonists, the preternaturally talented Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, who has never been better, anchor and uplift the film. And Michael Stuhlbarg gives a final act speech that sums up the movie’s themes of personal acceptance with astonishing flourish. James Ivory deftly adapted this André Aciman novel about a fleeting love that burns bright, and Sufjan Stevens provides much of the film’s memorable music. Guadagnino blends joy and pathos into a true wanderlust of emotions in a film of picturesque physical and emotional splendor. It’s one of the great films of this or any year.
A triumph of production design with a colorful supporting cast surrounding a bit of a hollow central storyline, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (B) reimagines The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1960s Cold War Baltimore with Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor at a military science lab who falls for Doug Jones’ captive Amphibious Man. It’s a visually arresting and solidly rendered fairy tale for adults, but the quirky central couple doesn’t get to do much more than display the traits of their tropes in an update of archetypes. Hawkins is effective in the quirky lead role, but the juiciest parts are played by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as her wry sidekicks and Michael Shannon as a corrupt colonel with a penchant for popping pills from a grotesque gangrenous hand. His unhinged performance, marked by a myriad of deplorable traits, is one of the film’s most notable delights. Alexandre Desplat’s score, layered with stardust melodies from classic Hollywood, sets the mood gracefully for outcasts in love. Del Toro clearly has a singular vision for his monster romance, but the film suffers from tonal shifts as its final act revolves into a protracted waiting game. Ultimately this beauty is missing a few beats.
Joe Wright’s historical biopic The Darkest Hour (B) takes few creative liberties as it chronicles Winston Churchill’s resolve to protect England from Hitler’s military, but the film is most notable because it affords Gary Oldman a rich fully inhabited central performance as the decisive and divisive prime minister. The direction is physically and metaphorically claustrophobic, shot in tight quarters and in confined conversations, to show the encroaching danger. The film is a straightforward companion piece to the propulsive Dunkirk, depicting much of the same time period, and the dandy drama The King’s Speech in which its protagonist monarch overcomes personal adversity and rises to the occasion. Honestly, aside from Oldman’s lived-in characterization of mania and mumbled and his arch to make his actions soar as profoundly as his oratory, Hour rarely gets great lift. The supporting characters including Kristin Scott Thomas and Stephen Dillane are unmemorable, and the film’s muted color palette of mostly dim interiors leaves the actions a bit in the shadows. It’s recommended for history buffs but offers few surprises or detours from the expected except for seeing exactly what the PM eats, drinks and dictates and how he one time rode on a train with commoners. There are parallels to contemporary leaders, whose nil by tweet stubbornness could tilt the world’s fortunes for war or peace. The present day overlay offers more prescient daydreams of adventurous storytelling than Wright actually commits to the screen.
Thoughts from outside The Tara theatre in Atlanta:
Martin McDonagh’s unconventional revenge drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (A) is one of the finest films of the year, upending expectations about a collection of well drawn characters in Small Town, America. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell give rich performances as a grieving mother of a murdered teenage girl and the seemingly incompetent local policemen she coerces into action to solve her daughter’s cold case. McDormand in particular delivers a performance for the ages, showcasing an indomitable spirit as she waged a grassroots campaign to right her family’s fissure in a world that’s gone out of its Ebbing mind. Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes are superb as her son and ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage adds a droll turn as a mysterious townsman. McDonagh maintains a dark comedic tone as he plumbs thorny issues in a shadowy microcosm of the justice system. For folks who enjoyed Hell or High Water, Fargo or this director’s own In Bruges, this will be your film to see this awards season.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s coming of age dramedy Lady Bird (A) is witty and wise and recognizes the nuances and power of mini revolutions afoot in the life of a teenager. Saoirse Ronan is sensational as the titular protagonist, a high schooler who feels trapped in the first world problems of life in Sacramento. The plot centers largely on the pivotal final two semesters of Lady Bird’s senior year as she tests her wry, unconventional outlook against the backdrop of cliques and friendships, parochial rules, drama club, college applications, counseling and school dances. The rhythm of fights with her tough mom, played masterfully by Laurie Metcalf, anchors many of the film’s most poignant moments. These actresses are spectacular at depicting the tempestuous mother/daughter dynamic. Lucas Hedges is also fantastic as Lady’s first love. Gerwig nails the tone and observational humor of episodes that build up to unexpected life lessons. Filled with a blissful Jon Brion score and subtle reference checks to Steinbeck and Sondheim, the film represents an auspicious debut for a talented actress trying her hand behind the camera. Gerwig and her uncanny muse Ronan have created a funny and tender work of utter joy. Moviegoers will enjoy watching this Bird fly.
Provoking a desire for audiences to watch a movie again in order to further study how all the narratives connect isn’t exactly a badge of storytelling honor. Writer/director Christopher Nolan continues his march to cinematic glory with two lofty experiments within one compact and technically thrilling WWII film in Dunkirk (B) and sometimes succeeds in spectacular spurts. Nolan employs two unconventional approaches in telling the story of stranded British, Canadian, French and Belgian soldiers retreating to safety across the English Channel in small boats when large watercraft are sitting targets. One of these hat tricks – creating a war movie without showing any of the German army antagonists on screen – might have been enough. But by depicting three intercutting stories on a trio of timelines – newcomer Fionn Whitehead as a soldier in a weeklong journey across land and sea (where an inert Kenneth Branagh as a naval officer plots events from a pier), Mark Rylance as a citizen on a one-day timetable guiding a pleasure boat into enemy territory to save as many servicemen as possible and Tom Hardy as an ace flier engaged in one hour of hitting enemy targets from the skies – Nolan scores a paradoxical panorama that is intriguing but shuts out emotionally satisfying undercurrents. It’s fun to treasure hunt for how the three sub-stories interact, but to what end? The technical triumphs of tick-ticking musical tension (a restrained Hans Zimmer), ultra-real sound design, eye-popping stunts and the general eschewing of typical battle tropes such as backstories or motivations all contribute to the firm’s originality. But in trying so hard not to state the obvious, Nolan forgoes characterization nearly completely. In a story that’s basically about caring, he doesn’t give entry points for audiences to invest specifically in any of the individuals in the collection. So it’s a glorious visual piece of impressionism, an agile brain teaser and a so-so war thriller. Blunted by bland fictional characters standing in loosely for real-life heroes, the film is a new form of cinematic Sudoku in which the major victories aren’t given much ado while Nolan counts his creative flourishes.
Prepare your senses for the clock-woke orange pulp confection of audacious moviemaking to hit a nerve in some time. Funnyman-turned-first-time-director Jordan Peele’s psychological thriller Get Out (A-) is a suspenseful and lively tale of a twentysomething black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) visiting the suburban family of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams), and the maiden voyage is a mindbender. Let’s just say that after the home tour, the events that follow will leave you guessing about a whole lot more than who’s coming to dinner. From the spot-on casting of Williams’ ultra-progressive parents to the sustained sense of dread around the townspeople and groundskeepers, Peele depicts the mounting terror that may be afoot in the neighborly facade. It’s like Shining-era Stanley Kubrick got an all-out David Lynching. Themes about the appropriation of race and culture are seamlessly marinated into a savory stew of a storyline; and the acting, music, sounds and setting all work in harmony to incredible effect. Catherine Keener is a standout as a therapist with unconventional hypnotic techniques, brilliantly rendered. As a horror film, it’s less gory and more allegory. But it’s edge of your seat material and sure to be the conversation starter of the year!