PHANTOM THREAD

by Alan Yudman

The fist word that comes to mind after seeing PHANTOM THREAD is “luxurious”. The second is “disturbing”. From BOOGIE NIGHTS to INHERENT VICE, the latter is Paul Thomas Anderson’s specialty. Visually stunning works of art that have a darkness just beneath the surface. His latest is no different.

The film washes over you like one of the couture dresses Reynolds Woodcock creates for the best of British society. Daniel Day-Lewis is the fastidious dress designer. He wants his life just so. He must control every aspect of it.. even his his soon to be former belle who confronts him at breakfast one morning and is gone by the afternoon. That so upsets Reynolds that he heads off to his country home. While eating breakfast (the most important meal of the day and of this movie), a waitress catches his eye. He flirts, they have dinner, he makes her a dress.. a romance is born. That waitress is Alma, played by Vicki Krieps in a dazzling performance. She has to match Day-Lewis scene for scene and holds her own dueling with one of history’s greatest actors. Holding Woodcock’s business and life together is his beloved sister Cyril, whom he calls “my old sew and sew”.. get it? Lesley Manville is also marvelous. She knows when to push and when to just go along with Woodcock’s eccentricities for the good of the business. Other characters flit in and out of the film, but it is built around these three.

It’s not hard to identify PHANTOM THREAD as a love story. How Alma falls in love with Reynolds because he lavishes her with beautiful dresses and a fine life. But she bumps up against his anal-retentiveness and tries to change him. That’s where the movie gets dark. But it is done with such style and good humor that you don’t see it coming.

It could be easy for the style to overwhelm the substance here. But Anderson would never let that happen. He uses the style to enhance the substance. The sweeping camera shots in Woodcock’s house/studio. The way the dresses flow land billow like great waves crashing over the film. The production design and cinematography are married to the score and the sound design. Jonny Greenwood’s score is marvelous and brings that sense of style and luxury to ever scene. The sound design is amazing. Every pull of a thread, every piercing of a piece of cloth, every scrape of knife of toast or chewing of food is enhanced and helps set up the tone and story. The art direction, the cinematography (Anderson is the uncredited man behind the lens), the wardrobe. It is all absolutely perfect. Nothing extraneous. Everything serves the story.

Anderson shot this in 70MM. I can’t imagine this in any other format. The use of film over digital is another perfect choice. The warmth and depth of color and imperfections cannot be matched by digital. And they fit this film perfectly.

Day-Lewis announced his retirement earlier this year, meaning that this is his final film. It is a typically outstanding performance. He has all the quirks and mannerisms of an eccentric designer down perfectly. His look, his choices cannot be matched by any other actor. When they take close ups of his hands, you can see scars from being poked by a needle. That is next level preciseness. That’s what makes a great actor. That attention to detail and he will be sorely missed.

PHANTOM THREAD takes a dark and disturbing turn in the final third of the film. It’s not unpleasant, but fits given how it was all set up. It is Anderson’s special genius to tell those kind of stories so well. He wraps the audience in beauty, but somewhere there is a Phantom Threat waiting to be pulled. That’s what makes his movies great. And that’s what makes this film one of the year’s best.

THE DISASTER ARTIST

by Alan Yudman

A friend once asked me if I had seen THE ROOM (see link). I hadn’t so he loaned me his DVD copy and told me to “enjoy”. Yeah… enjoy is the wrong word. It is generally considered to be the worst movie ever made. It has become a favorite of midnight screenings where people dress up like the characters and throw things at the screen. But the story of how it was made and the man who made it are more compelling than anyone realized at the time. That story inspired James Franco, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to make THE DISASTER ARTIST. And we are all better for it.

This is the story of Tommy Wiseau. I’d tell you who he is, but even 14 years after he made this steaming pile of doo doo, no one really knows who he is. He speaks with an obvious Eastern European accent, but insists he is from New Orleans. He financed THE ROOM out of his own pocket, but no one knows where he got his money. See, a mystery. Wiseau meets Greg Sestero in a San Francisco acting class. The pretty, but largely untalented Sestero is impressed by Tommy’s passion and he two hit it off and decide to move to L.A. to become actors. Here’s the problem, they are botah terrible and cannot get hired. So at Sestero’s urging, Tommy makes a movie on his own. Voilá, THE ROOM was born.

This is the best thing I have ever seen Franco & Co. do. It’s not their usual half-funny stoner comedy. This is a compelling story that is well told. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapted the screenplay from Sestero’s book about the making of the original movie that he co-wrote with Tom Bissell. Franco takes that script and breathes even more life into it. But it’s not just his direction. He plays Tommy and it is a spot on imitation of Wiseau. He has his speech patterns and accent down perfectly. I don’t think he his mocking him, it is a loving portrayal. Sestero is played by Franco’s brother Dave, in my mind the better Franco. He hits the notes perfectly.. embracing Sestero’s lack of talent and passion for acting. The film is also loaded with small roles for great comic actors. Rogen (less of Seth is always preferable), Melanie Griffith, Sharon Stone, Judd Apatow (as himself), Paul Scheer, Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas, Megan Mullaly, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Ari Graynor, Jacki Weaver…. that’s only a partial list. Each one is fabulous.

It’s obvious the regard Franco has for the source material. Each re-shot scene from THE ROOM is spot on. It’s an exact duplication (stay for the credits and you’ll see what I mean).

Even if you have not seen THE ROOM, you will be able to appreciate THE DISASTER ARTIST for what it is, an incredibly interesting story that is very well told.

I only have one more thing to say… “I DID NOT HIT HER, IT’S NOT TRUE! IT’S BULLSHIT! I DID NOT HIT HER! OH, HI MARK”.

THE ROOM

Editors note: I am reposting my review of THE ROOM because of the release of THE DISASTER ARTIST. A review of that film is coming soon.

There are movies that are so bad that you have to watch them just so you can say, “yeah, I saw that…. 2 hours of my life I’ll never get back. THE ROOM is just that kind of movie. It’s billed as a “black comedy”. All the humor here is unintentional and at the filmmaker’s expense. The plot is pretty simple. Johnny and Lisa are engaged. Johnny is loving (even though his accent and long hair make him appear to be a Bond villain), Lisa is a manipulative bitch who doesn’t love him anymore and wants to sleep with Johnny’s best friend Mark. Wait, didn’t I see this on “Days of our Lives” in the ’80’s? That’s it, that’s the plot. Oh, but the execution. That’s where this goes from simple to simply horrible. Characters just all of a sudden show up with no explanation. Then they disappear just a quickly, never to be seen again. The dialogue is wooden and at times makes absolutely zero sense. The acting is well, some porn actors are better (not that I’ve ever seen any). And speaking of “porn”, there are soft core sex scenes sprinkled throughout the movie that are scored like some power ballad by a failed ’80’s hair metal band. You should wear a neck brace to guard against the sudden turns the movie takes without warning. In one scene Lisa’s mom drops a bombshell about her health in the middle of a conversation like she’s talking about the weather. And Lisa reacts like that’s exactly what her Mom just told her, “Dear, it’s going to be sunny tomorrow”. Then there is the 18-year-old kid who is Johnny’s charity case, paying for his school and apartment. And we’re supposed to believe Johnny’s doing this just because he’s a big softie. Oh, and footballs. The guys are forever tossing around a football for no apparent reason, I suppose because “that’s what guys do when they get together”. It’s inexplicable. Then, in the final scene the whole thing takes a huge turn that really makes no sense whatsoever. Maybe you could watch this and play a drinking game.. take a shot every time Johnny laughs like an idiot or Lisa acts like a bitch. Better yet, drink before you see THE ROOM. I probably should have, it would have been easier to swallow. — Alan Yudman

COCO

by Alan Yudman

Ok, Pixar. We get it. It is nearly impossible for you to make a movie that is average, or doesn’t tug at your heartstrings by the end. The latest in the “how is a cartoon making me cry” canon is COCO.

Rather than have me describe the plot, let’s go to IMDB: “Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather, a legendary singer”. Yeah, that’s pretty much the basics.

It’s a story about family, expectations and how following your heart means doing what you love even if it disappoints those who love you.

The film as a whole is wonderful, but there were several parts that stood out for me. It is visually stunning. When Miguel first enters the Land of the Dead, the detail and color are breathtaking. The story embraces Mexican culture, but does not pander to it. That is a hat tip to Pixar for brining on writer and director Adrian Molina. It was his story and his co-direction with Lee Unkrich (TOY STORY 2 & 3, FINDING NEMO) is a marriage made in storytelling heaven. This isn’t a Mexican story with “gringo” music. Every song is an homage to the rich musical history of Mexico. The performances are simply fantastic. Like Auli’i Cravalho in MOANA last year, Anthony Gonzalez is the breakout star here. He does great voice work as Miguel and his singing is top notch.

And because it is a Pixar movie, bring tissues. The last 15 minutes are sure to make you weep, or at least coax a tear to run down your cheek.

Pixar has raised expectations with each movie. We count on their movies to tell compelling stories and tug at our heartstrings. When they don’t (CARS 2 &3, THE GOOD DINOSAUR) it is a major disappointment and begins wringing of hands. But then a movie like COCO comes along and we once again believe all is right in the Pixar universe.

GET OUT

by Alan Yudman

It only took me 10 months, but I finally am joining the GET OUT is a great movie party. Save me a spot on the bandwagon. Maybe I can just sit on someone’s lap.

Jordan Peele did something that I didn’t think was possible. He made me care about a psychological thriller. That is not my favorite genre. The tension sometimes feels overwhelming. Waiting for the next “BOO” consistently ruins my enjoyment. But, somehow Peele overcame that for me. Maybe it was how he tempered the scares with humor. Maybe because right off the bat, I saw the message he was trying to send about the way Black people see slightly too friendly white folks. Maybe it was the not so subtle slavery references. Whatever tricks he pulled out of his bag, they worked on me.

The performances by all the actors are top notch. But Daniel Kaluuya, LilRel Howery, Allison Williams and Lakeith Stanfield stood out for me. Kaluuya was the eyes and ears of the audience.. finding out what the family was up too as we were, then fighting to destroy the evil. That’s what a hero does. Stanfield and Howery’s small but important roles hit the notes perfectly. Williams sold the outrage initially, which then made her turn all the more shocking.

I heard about an alternate ending in which Kaluuya’s Chris is arrested after the bloody ending at the house. I’m glad Peele decided not to go with that. After watching his triumphant defeat of what are basically slave traders, seeing Chris once again become subject to White society would have been disappointing. The ending as is, is triumphant and satisfying. It was exactly what the audience needed to complete the story.

It took me 10 months to finally sit down and watch this movie that everyone has been talking about. I’m sorry it took me so long, but I’m glad I finally did. Peele’s future is bright and GET OUT is one of the best movies of the year.

I, TONYA

by Alan Yudman

The question I asked myself when I walked out of I, TONYA was, “can a movie about abuse and domestic violence be funny?”. It may leave you uncomfortable, but there is no doubt there is a lot of laughs in here. But you have to remember what is really going on.

I don’t even believe I have to remind everyone of the plot, but I will anyway. Tonya Harding was a redneck who became America’s best figure skater. She was a talented athlete. The first to land a triple axle in competition. She was also a complete mess. Her mom was abusive. She married Jeff Gillooly, who seemed to love Tonya, but also beat the crap out of her. His friend was the completely delusional Shawn Eckhardt. Gillooly and Eckhardt conspired to attack Harding’s main rival Nancy Kerrigan who was knee-capped before the National’s in Detroit about 6 weeks before the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

What you may or may not know is how much of a shit-show Harding’s life was. Her mother LaVona was a complete nightmare. She emotionally and physically abused Tonya her entire life. She forced her into figure skating then made her feel like she was doing her a favor. She hit her and tormented her. She is a completely horrible human being and should not have ever had children. The absolutely wonderful Allison Janney gives a perfect performance as LaVona. By the end of the movie you absolutely loathe her. Usually, these characters have some kind of internal conflict. Not here. She is beyond sympathy.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers and Director Craig Gillespie made an interesting choice. They did the film as sort of a mockumentary. The actors portray themselves in interview, 20-plus years after the fact. And they try to explain away their roles or motivations just like a real person might. It’s kinda brilliant. The movie is filled with humor, especially when they get to the plot directed at Kerrigan. But, they are quite possibly the stupidest criminals ever to conspire. They left a trail a blind detective could follow. It’s hilarious.

The aesthetics and attention to detail are also wonderful. If you are a fan of A&R rock and pop from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s run out to buy the soundtrack. It’s wonderful. The skating costumes are kitschy and nostalgic. Harding famously didn’t have money to buy costumes so they were sewn by her mother and later herself.

The casting is interesting. Margot Robbie does a fine job playing Tonya. She’s much taller and physically more attractive than Harding. They try to “ugly” her up. Robbie is 5’6” and Harding is only 5’1”. So they shoot her in a way so she doesn’t tower over her co-stars while she is wearing skates. But it’s hard not to notice that objectively, Robbie is better looking. Sebastian Stan plays Gillooly. Paul Walter Hauser does a great job playing the doughy nincompoop Eckhardt.

None of that matters in the end. This is a funny, compelling movie. Janney better get a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She should get an Oscar to pair with all her Emmys. It’s worth seeing just for her performance. But there is so much more here to hold your attention and keep you entertained. The movie goes for that elusive triple axle and nails it.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

by Alan Yudman

How to write this review without spoilers? I’m not sure I can. So please, don’t be angry if I reveal too much.

The general plot of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI centers around the First Order led by General Hux, trying to wipe out the last remnants of the Resistance. How that plays out and the multiple ways the Resistance tries to survive are the threads that tie it all together. Rey is still on Luke Skywalker’s island, training to be a Jedi and trying to convince the scarred and bitter hero to join the fight. Fin and Rose (a new character wonderfully played by Kelly Marie Tran) are trying to disable a new First Order tracking system that can find ships as they travel through hyperspace. They go to find a code breaker on a distant planet called Canto Bight. Maz Kanata says he can get them onto Snoke’s ship. Poe Dameron has been “benched” because while he takes out a First Order ship in the early part of the film, his victory comes at an enormous cost. While all that is going on, Kylo Ren is shamed by Snoke and he tries to redeem himself by supposedly luring Rey into his corner using apparent “Jedi mind tricks”.

Ok, that covers the broad strokes. And they are strokes ably applied by Rian Johnson who wrote and directed THE LAST JEDI. The story goes places and touches on things we’ve never seen in a Star Wars movie. There is class distinction. A distinction between rich and poor. Women are given prominent roles, not just as big heroines but as the important bit players flying X-Wing fighters and Rebel bombers and manning control panels on First Order ships. There are few points at which you wonder, “wait, where did that come from”, but it in no way detracts from the film. It’s solid piece of Sci-Fi and touches on modern themes that Johnson could not have known would be prominent in popular culture when the movie wrapped filming before November 2016. This may be the most visually stunning of the 8 Star Wars films. Two scenes stand out in my mind. There is a battle in Snoke’s throne room that is wonderfully choreographed. The art direction and cinematography are perfect. Also, when the Resistance arrives at its new base, that planet is spectacularly constructed by the production designers.

The performances from Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Domnhall Gleason are all right on point. There are small, important performances from Benicio Del Torro and Laura Dern that are wonderful. Back to Carrie for a moment. It is impossible not to feel melancholy about her appearance. She is so vital to the story and yet it is the last time we will ever see her. Sad doesn’t begin to describe the emotions.

The themes involve family, power and trust. Outside of Rey’s growth as a Jedi, the most interesting arc to me was Poe’s. There wasn’t nearly enough of Oscar Isaac in the THE FORCE AWAKENS. Problem solved. Poe is a “strength means blowing stuff up” guy. He would rather fight that talk. Any step away from a battle is weakness. But he learns from both Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo (Dern) that sometimes being strong means knowing when not to fight. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in Episode IX.

Before I wrap this up, let me quickly address the Porgs. Those are those little bird/rodent looking things you’ve seen in the trailers. I was fearful they’d be annoying or too cloyingly sweet. Nothing to worry about. They are used as kind of tension breakers or comic relief, which is just fine.

EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is the best Star Wars movie. THE LAST JEDI hits a lot of the same marks in story, tone and plot and in some ways does it better. So while LAST JEDI may not be the best, it is definitely 1-A.

Whew… not too many spoilers I hope. Oh, almost forgot to mention Rey’s parents. Nope. Not going there. You’ll just have to see for yourself.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

by Alan Yudman

It’s only mid-December as I write this and there are a lot of “Oscar-bait” movies still to come as Christmas approaches. But, put your money down that CALL ME BY YOUR NAME will be among the nominees for Best Picture and will be a favorite. Yes, it is that good.

Luca Guadagnino has made what may be a perfect film. It is touching, engaging, funny and filled with emotion. He has taken an Academy Award worthy script by the legendary James Ivory and made it better. It’s simply amazing.

The story focuses on the evolving relationship between Elio and Oliver. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer). Oliver arrives at the Italian villa owned by Elio’s father who is a professor of archaeology or antiquities. Sorry, not clear which but it doesn’t really matter. He has been hired as a research assistant for the summer. Elio is 17, a music prodigy who is exploring what appears to be a newfound sexuality. He is intrigued by Oliver who he tries to seduce, but is put off. Their interactions are tense and confusing to Elio, but their attraction grows stronger and stronger until their mutual desire is fulfilled. It’s a wonderful love story,

Guadagnino knows how to let a scene breathe. He allows the visuals to evolve naturally. There is no sense of urgency. It is the visual definition of languid. But it is so beautiful. The northern Italian countryside is lovingly shot by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. The colors are muted, and natural. He just lets it be what it is. If you don’t want to travel to a small Italian villa after seeing this film, well I can’t help you. You’re beyond help, actually.

The acting perfect. More perfect than anything I’ve seen this year. Chalamet portray’s Elio’s innocence and insecurity while hitting every note. His nominations for Best Actor from SAG and the Golden Globes are richly deserved. Armie Hammer has done a lot of big budget “tent pole” style films like THE LONE RANGER and THE MAN FROM UNCLE. But he has also been unafraid to take risks, like playing the Winklevoss twins in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. But he has taken a huge leap forward here. Oliver is self-assured but reluctant to succumb to his feelings for Elio. Hammer cloaks it in bravado and it is a spectacular choice. Michael Stuhlbarg also turns in a wonderful performance as Elio’s father and delivers a soliloquy towards the end of the movie that should be copied and given to every parent as a lesson on how to love your children.

The music is also outstanding. Sufjan Stevens provides three wonderful songs. But the rest of the score pieced together by Music Consultant Gerry Gershman and Music Supervisor Robin Urdang compliments the visuals and story perfectly.

Looking back, I’ve used the word “perfect” a lot. It is well deserved. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is very nearly a perfect movie. I cannot find much in the way of flaws, at least none that takes away from the enjoyment of this spectacular film.