Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

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In a film culture dominated – visibly or not – by views inextricably tied to the concept of auteurism, there’s something irresistible about judging films by how they reflect the artistic evolution of their director. In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson, this arc is clear, moving from the wide-ranging ensembles of Boogie Nights and Magnolia to the intent historical studies of There Will Be Blood and The Master. In particular, the latter two films and his latest effort, Phantom Thread, represent a neat trilogy (interrupted by Inherent Vice) of stylistic and thematic development. But at the same time, this film represents something daring in Anderson’s career: something astonishingly shapeshifting, tracing the ebbs and flow of a relationship with an exceeding amount of care, all with a lushness and richness of form that belies an essential, wondrous perversity.

Anderson here works in a setting entirely new to him: the haute couture fashion scene of 1950s London, five thousand miles away from his preferred setting of Southern California. It centers upon Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), an intensely private and controlling acclaimed fashion designer with only his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) as a constant companion. Things quickly change when Reynolds happens upon Alma (Vicky Krieps), a shy, quiet waitress who becomes his muse. To reveal much more would give away some of the most genuine surprises of 2017, but suffice it to say that their relationship is forced into changes that eventually put Alma on an equal footing with the two seemingly indomitable siblings.

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Anderson’s attention to detail and mood, especially in period settings, has always been uncannily attuned, and it feels even more heightened here. Much of the film is suffused by returning collaborator Jonny Greenwood’s score, which has a lilting, swooning quality, reminiscent of music far removed from the Hollywood of today, that matches perfectly with the gliding, elusiveness of the cinematography (headed by an uncredited Anderson).

What moves and transports about Phantom Thread is precisely that which cannot be adequately described without foreknowledge of the film’s summed development. Such intensity towards something so ostensibly normal and gentle is rare, especially when combined with a certain sharp wit and humor. Constantly evolving before the viewer’s eyes, it works in both stillness (the gazes of Day-Lewis, Krieps, and Manville) and dynamism (the world that swirls around them) to create something that simply embodies romance.

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The Commuter (2018, Jaume Collet-Serra)

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A far cry from the portentous, franchise-driven blockbusters of today, the oeuvre of Jaume Collet-Serra is one of effectiveness and impacts. In the vein of the classic form of the auteur theory – the manifestation of recurring visual and thematic motifs in a blatantly commercial setting – Collet-Serra has established himself as someone capable of churning out incredibly well-made, visceral mid-budget pictures. His career so far has followed two paths, the first of which is horror, represented by the very fun 2005 remake of House of Wax, the utterly masterful Orphan, and the elementally constructed The Shallows. But the aspect more germane to this review is his series of action films with the resurgent Liam Neeson, all of which are tense and subtly playful works that use restrictions – physical, temporal – for maximum effect.

With The Commuter, this standard has been maintained, albeit in a more crowd-pleasing and unabashedly conventional format. Our Neeson hero this time around is Michael, an ex-cop turned insurance salesman that has taken the Hudson Valley line to Grand Central Station every day for the past ten years. On the way back from being fired, he is approached on the train by a mysterious woman who calls herself Joanna (previous Collet-Serra collaborator Vera Farmiga). In an astoundingly dynamic, extended conversation, the self-described people observer slowly tempts Michael into accepting her offer of $100,000 to find a particular, unfamiliar passenger on the train. As motives are slowly revealed and identities are unmasked, Michael uses his particular set of skills in judicious fashion.

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This scenario is closest to what is his perhaps Collet-Serra’s finest film yet, the airplane-set Non-Stop, but the stakes are delineated in sharply different ways. While Neeson was an air marshal in that film, he is clearly set as an everyman, concerned first and foremost with wrestling between his desire for the money – his son is about to go to a college that he can’t afford – and his burgeoning conscience. Collet-Serra takes care to set him against the massive melting pot that is the collected inhabitants of New York City. Especially in the first act of the film, the cars of the train are crammed, and even as more and more passengers exit the almost stage-like confines, there are more than enough riders (and potential targets).

It is worth noting the touches that, at first glance, are not typical of Collet-Serra. Though his films have never been anything approaching dour or self-serious, they have always been relatively sober affairs, especially his previous Neeson collaboration Run All Night. Not so with The Commuter: it boasts at least a few moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, including a delicious flipping of the bird to an arrogant broker, and the eventual derailment of the train is handled with, if not excess, then a flashiness that is atypical.

But in conjunction with this seeming kowtowing to the cultural taste for destruction comes an even greater manifestation of Collet-Serra’s ability to create impact with every single scene. Here, his mode is that of destabilization, of which the opening salvo of an utterly disorienting montage, cutting back and forward in time over a decade of early morning routines, is but the first of gambits. A noticeably shaky use of handheld, impossible CGI tracking shots through the entirety of the train, motivated uses of slow-motion, a bravura one-take fight scene, even an honest-to-God Vertigo zoom: all of these are in Collet-Serra’s toolkit, and he integrates them with his precise style perfectly. If The Commuter is an example of a director’s style triumphing over the standard content that he is given, it matters little: it is genuine and fun, done with a love of craft and film that is nothing short of intoxicating.

Goldbuster (Sandra Ng, 2017)

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In her directorial debut, veteran comic actress Sandra Ng gives us a goofy farce, a compendium of horror movie tropes and references, and a sappy tribute to the underdog spirit of Hong Kong’s working class in the days of hyper-capitalisim and real estate speculation. She plays a ghostbuster hired by a handful of families to protect themselves from the evil spirits haunting their dilapidated apartment building. The ghosts are a scam, a scheme by a developer to get the last remaining tenants of a property to sell so he can tear the building down and make something new (the pull-away shot revealing the location is striking: a lone run-down concrete block surrounding by a massive ditch separating it from the city itself all CGI skyscrapers and hazy lights, an island of the real in the middle of an urban fantasy). Ng, no stranger to con games herself, quickly deduces the scam and helps the residents out-scare their ghosts, a game of horror movie one-upsmanship that turns into a full-scale zombie invasion.

Ng has been one of Hong Kong’s brightest comics for over two decades now, equally at home in slapstick, grotesquerie and wordplay, and while her film doesn’t have the classical misanthropy of Michael Hui or the blinding verbal games of Stephen Chow, it does recall her own Golden Chicken films in the way it explores how the feeling and ideology of a place can be expressed through the stories it tells itself. In Golden Chicken and its sequel (from 2002 and 2003), she plays a gregarious prostitute who recalls her life story in parallel to the history of Hong Kong, political and pop cultural, from the late 70s through the immediate post-Handover era. Goldbuster isn’t as expansive, but rather explores how stories of the supernatural can paralyze us and how fear is manipulated by ruling elites to bend us to their whim, Scooby-Doo as Marxist allegory.

While, pointedly, Goldbuster‘s location is never specified, it could technically take place in any Chinese city, that seems more a concession of vagueness for the Mainland market than any real conviction. In tone and purpose this is a resolutely Hong Kong film, where stories about housing complexes and tenants’ wars with their landlords have a long tradition, a byproduct of the housing shortages which followed the influx of massive numbers of refugees in the post-World War II and Civil War years. Chor Yuen’s House of 72 Tenants almost single-handedly saved the Cantonese language film from extinction in the early 70s, and in recent years as speculation and real estate bubbles have made affordable housing increasingly hard to find, the subject has become ubiquitous. Comedies like Temporary Family, which played here at SIFF in 2015, and last year’s Sinking City: Capsule Odyssey address it head-on, while Goldbuster folds the crisis into the fabric of its gonzo vision of a city driven to apocalypse by decades of unease and overdevelopment.

Each of its characters, generic types all of course, are refugees in some way from the past twenty years of economics and pop culture: scientists scammed out of their patents; a webcam girl; over-the-hill Triads, one of whom (the great Francis Ng (no releation) thinks he’s a cop); a doctor who failed to save his wife from some illness. The latter is the most melodramatic character, afflicted as he is by an adorable son and a penchant for whininess, obsessed with finding his wife’s ghost and somehow atoning for her death. This is the paralytic state the tenants find themselves in: trapped by fear and overcome with superstition, surrounded on all sides by rapacious capital. Only with the wit and heart of a scoundrel like Sandra Ng can they hope to defeat the forces waged against them. Another victory for the indigenous scrappiness of Hong Kongers against the powers of vague superstition and vampiric elites.

Hostiles (Scott Cooper, 2017)

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Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is sure to be in the running for the Most Acting of 2017 award. Ostensibly a Western, set in 1892 it’s the story of a aged cavalry officer tasked with escorting a cancer-ridden Cheyenne chief and his family from a reservation in New Mexico to their ancestral lands in Montana, but it’s more properly considered a historical fantasy, a translation of the therapeutic culture of the late 20th century onto events somewhat similar to those which transpired in our nation’s past. Notably not the 21st century though, as one would think the greater awareness of the politics of identity would have cautioned a filmmaker against creating a narrative of absolution for America that, while peopled with an impressive array of cultural representatives, is told entirely through the perspective of its white heroes.

The story is split in half, giving each side of the Indian Wars the chance to exorcise their violent past by killing a psychopathic member of their own group. Both killings take place off-camera, but pointedly the film opens with the brutal and tragic crimes committed by a crazed band of Comanches, and much of the film will be seen through the eyes of the lone survivor of that attack (an anguished Rosamund Pike). The white killer’s crime, though, happens before we ever meet him, and he becomes a fully-fleshed out character, complete with backstory and long dialogues with our hero (these mostly consist of the killer, Ben Foster, telling the hero, Christian Bale, how much they are the same while Bale looks thoughtfully into the distance through his impressive moustache). And much emoting. So much emoting. An early scene of Bale howling in the wilderness, plays like a parody of Terrence Malick. It’s exhausting.

Every generation, I suppose, feels the need to translate history into its own idiom, and ours is a time when every tragedy is not only deeply felt but every feeling is openly expressed. The pragmatic stoicism (and/or repression) of the pioneers and soldiers who settled The West doesn’t jive with our modern notions of acting in the cinema, but honestly reckoning with the sheer brutal terror of life during the Indian Wars requires more curiosity about how the people who lived through it actually behaved. Of course, this only applies to the white characters, who cry and scream and are astoundingly insubordinate when they aren’t mere contrivances, as in the appearance of Rapacious Capital and his men near the end of the film. The Cheyenne are given almost nothing to do but look alternately sad and noble. Hostiles boasts the greatest collection of Native American acting talent in a Hollywood film in years, with Wes Studi, Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher, yet it can’t think of more than a few words for any of them to say. Their role is to humanize the white people, and to forgive them. And then they are no longer required: their future belongs to the establishment of the white family unit.

Princess Cyd (2017, Stephen Cone)

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Chicago-based director Stephen Cone has quietly crafted, over the past decade, some of the loveliest films about queerness, faith, and queerness of faith in recent memory. His careful synthesis of exquisitely balanced ensemble casts and a straight-on, vaguely dreamy style makes for films that feel immensely attuned to both their main protagonists and the peripheral characters that fill out their existences. The two films that established his reputation on the American festival circuit, The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, notably both took place in the distinct milieus of churches and never resorted to one-dimensional or dogmatic views of believers or nonbelievers.

In this regard, Princess Cyd represents something of a departure for Cone. It follows the stories of Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) and her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence) as the former, a vivacious teen about to enter her high school senior year, visits the latter, a professor and author of some renown, in Chicago for a few weeks. Their relationship is, from the start, playful and dynamic, as the two push and poke at the difference in years, views, and experiences between them. During her short stay, Cyd attends parties – her aunt’s “soirées,” a turn of phrase that does not go unnoticed – explores the city, and embarks upon a tentative relationship with an androgynous barista, Katie (Malic White).

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Downsizing (Alexander Payne, 2017)

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Downsizing begins as a premise: what if the technology existed to shrink people down to five inches tall, while retaining everything else about them? Scarcity would not exactly cease to be a problem, but resources would instantly become vastly more available, as it would require far less in terms of material to feed, clothe, or house a human being. The result is a vast increase in wealth for the shrunken: the middle class instantly transformed into the idle rich. The first third of Alexander Payne’s film follows just such a middle class couple, Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, as they decide to undergo the downsizing process. There are informational meetings with sales reps, goodbye parties with friends and loved ones, and the clinical downsizing process itself, right down to where the shrunken people are gently scooped out of their now-oversized hospital beds with spatulas. Damon’s dream of post-capital luxury however, is crudely broken when he learns that he wife has backed out of the procedure. The resulting divorce leaves him not happily retired in a palatial mansion, but doomed to work as telephone support for Land’s End.

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Pitch Perfect 3 (Trish Sie, 2017)

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The latest installment in the Pitch Perfect franchise, about an all-female competitive a cappella group, is as delightfully unpretentious a comedy as one is likely to find these days coming out of Hollywood. Gone are the obnoxious and dull men who cluttered up the fun of the first two films with bland romantic subplots. Missing as well is the undercurrent of loneliness and failure that made the first film (about the unnatural drive to fit in with a group) and the second (about the power of female friendship) surprisingly emotionally resonant. Instead, this time around the young women (college students no longer) find themselves whisked away from their dull entry-level jobs and into a globe-trotting USO show, which offers a chance at international intrigue that, weirdly enough, turns a goofy comedy about singing into the best Fast and the Furious movie of 2017.

Much funnier than the previous two films, the comedy in Pitch Perfect 3 is almost entirely verbal, disregarding the gross-out jokes of prior films. Much of it is in the form of call-backs, but not simply references to earlier, funnier jokes (as in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons), but in knowing, muttered asides building on our knowledge of the various characters and the films’ structures. (Missing as well is the questionable characterization of the group’s lone Hispanic member, an immigrant from Guatemala. The film’s one reference to her home country is merely a setup for one of the year’s finest puns). The Bellas classic riff-off game is turned in on itself when they challenge their fellow musicians on the tour, the bizarre rituals of competitive a cappella increasingly absurd in a real world where people can make music with things that aren’t their mouths. Anna Kendrick again leads the way, deadpanning her way through what amounts to the film’s emotional crisis: whether to take an opportunity at solo stardom or remain with the group. While Rebel Wilson finds herself in the middle of an action movie plot, with her estranged father, John Lithgow (the anti-music dad from Footloose) as antagonist. Her series of fights at the climax successfully, I kid you not, calls back to some of Michael Hui’s finest work. The music is much the same as always, though the Bellas are at least this time blissfully free of internal or musical conflict: they function as a team and through years of experience are not lacking in confidence, merely opportunity. No performance has yet matched Kendrick’s chilling “When I’m Gone” from the first film, but the finales have gotten better with every movie, and this one’s choice of song couldn’t be more, well, perfect.

The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro)

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Evaluating a film based upon the awards it has won or is expected to win is, by its very nature, a dubious endeavor. The tastes of a particular organization or festival (especially one whose jury is reconfigured every year) are fickle and often unreliable in selecting the very best films in competition. But the case of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water presents a curious case. As the winner of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival and an unabashedly romantic fantasy, it represents a sharp break with the winners of the past few years. The previous recipient of the prestigious award was a typically protracted, ascetic effort from Lav Diaz, and in general the tastes of the festival juries have tended towards the more extreme ends of the arthouse.

The Shape of Water, by contrast, lies as close to the mainstream as a film dedicated to an interspecies romance can. Set in early Cold War-era Baltimore, it follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman who works the cleaning night shift at a governmental research facility. Rendered mute as a child, her existence is simple but fulfilling, with companionship found in her fellow janitor Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Spencer), a closeted advertising artist. Into this cozy existence comes two distinctly separate, equally emblematic forces: an amphibian creature (Doug Jones) revered in the South American jungle as a god, with whom Elisa quickly develops a longing rapport and attraction born out of common loneliness, and Strickland (Michael Shannon), the authoritarian agent who discovered him.

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The Disaster Artist (James Franco, 2017)

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James Franco’s story of the making of the latest “Worst Movie of All-Time”, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (which plays monthly at the Central Cinema and other places around town) feels like all the cool kids got together to make fun of the freakiest, geekiest kid in school. I mean, the movie opens with an actual Disney princess talking about how terrible the guy’s movie is, kicking off a series of so-bad-it’s-hilarious proclamations by Hollywood successes. I haven’t seen The Room, bad movies just make me feel bad. And laughing at them only makes me feel worse. And from what I have seen, and from its depiction here in exacting recreations, seen side-by-side with the original over the closing credits, it is impossible not to laugh at The Room.

The obvious comparison is with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, of course. But that was a film that really tried to understand its subject as an actual human being, rather than just an opaque manifestation of weirdness. We want Ed Wood to fulfill his dreams and we feel for him at every failure and (humble) triumph: it doesn’t matter that his art is terrible, at least he succeeded in making something that meant something to him. And Glen or Glenda, at least, is so personal and horrifying an object that it arguably qualifies as great art, despite the fact that the corporate video store I worked at in the 90s deemed it so bad we would rent it out free of charge.

Franco never bothers to look at Wiseau the same way: he’s too opaque a collections of quicks to have an actual personality to express, and he isn’t even allowed to be the center of his own story. This is a story about Greg, a wanna-be actor (played by Dave Franco) who met a weirdo and together they made a terrible movie that everybody laughed at. And in our degraded age that has somehow become the same thing as making something great.

The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

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The following are a few brief thoughts on The Last Jedi rather than a proper review. I try to keep it vague or completely unmentioned for fear of spoiling. Depending on how sensitive you are to such things, you probably shouldn’t be reading any reviews at all. Maybe I’ll come back to it in a few weeks, after I’ve had a chance to more fully absorb it and to see it again.

The Last Jedi is the Star Wars movie we’ve been waiting for, the culmination of years of ancillary products building on and expanding the mythos developed over the first trilogy and inverted in the second. Like The Force Awakens, its structure is explicitly modeled on a film from the first trilogy, in this case, The Empire Strikes Back. Despite our heroes’ triumph in the last film, a rag-tag band of freedom fighters find themselves under assault by the fascistic enemy. They escape, but the principal good guys are separated and their storylines play out individually, one set on the run in space, while another tries to get advice from a reclusive Jedi master. All threads come together in an ending more bittersweet than triumphant, setting the stage for a final showdown in part three of the story. But this, aside from a handful of gags both visual and verbal here or there, is where the similarities end. In fact, The Last Jedi deftly subverts the expectation of repetition, resolving some conflicts while deepening others, breaking out of the series’ ringlike story and calling for a radical break with the past. To put it into the terms of our contemporary politics: if the original trilogy is about the triumph of neo-liberalism, and the prequel trilogy about the corruption of that ideology by the forces of fascism, then The Last Jedi is where the trilogy truly embraces revolution.

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