REVIEW: “Phantom Thread”

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There is a wonderful sensation I experience whenever I’m watching a movie made by a first-rate director. Take a filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson whose movies I’m widely mixed on. He is someone who knows his craft and has a firm grasp on how to express his vision. He possesses a clarity of concept and a keen understanding of cinematic storytelling. And even if I’m mixed on whatever movie he is making, I can tell I’m in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. I adore that feeling.

Then you have the scintillating joy of watching a great actor at work. Someone like Daniel Day-Lewis, another true master of his craft. He and Anderson first came together for “There Will Be Blood”, a modern American classic and a masterclass on the cinematic form both in front of and behind the camera. They team up again for “Phantom Thread” which Day-Lewis has called his final film. The selfish me hopes that isn’t true, but if it is what a fabulous movie to call your last.

Anderson (once again serving as both writer and director) sets his film among the posh fashion culture of 1950s London. The centerpiece is renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) who along with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) has built up a distinguished clientele that includes royalty, heiresses, and various other upper-crusters. Reynolds’ world revolves around his work and he has much more interest in the intricate workings of a fine garment than the rudimentary details of a social life. As with many creative minds, his obsession feeds his genius but it also emotionally isolates him from everyone other than Cyril.

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Things take a turn when Reynolds heads to his country cottage for some much needed time away. He meets a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) at a seaside cafe and is instantly captivated. Krieps is an accomplished actress from Luxembourg who conveys a sneaky beauty and subtle style befitting her character. Her Alma makes an unanticipated crack in Reynolds’ hard shell – something this “confirmed bachelor” has trouble understanding or responding to. For instance when she asks “Why are you not married?” he can only respond “I make dresses.” It’s a genuine reaction from someone whose past muses were nothing more than temporary fixtures.

Reynolds brings Alma back to London and takes her into the House of Woodcock. She quickly learns he governs his Victorian townhouse/studio with an aristocratical fervor. Seamstresses and assistants scurry about following his meticulous instructions and Alma is soon part of the machine. Only Cyril (who he affectionately calls “my old so-and-so”) seems outside of Reynolds’ rule. You could say she is his handler and at times his conscience (and Manville is just terrific). She knows what makes him tick.

The film’s trailer sells us an unlikely romance and Anderson certainly offers that. But tension mounts as Alma desires a closer relationship while Reynolds withdraws back into his shell. It’s here that the director tosses us a curveball and his movie takes an unexpected turn. The less said the better, but suffice it to say Anderson’s aim isn’t a frothy conventional love story. He injects a subtle psychological edge with pinches of black comedy and it all plays out in a gloriously beguiling stew.

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Equally enchanting is the film’s cinematography said to be a result of a “collaborative effort” due to Anderson favorite Robert Elswit being unavailable. The subtle camera movements can be as elegant as the garments Reynolds creates. Look no further than the opening scene where we are given a visual introduction the House of Woodcock. The camera gracefully moves in tune with the sumptuous piano chords of Jonny Greenwood’s score – up a staircase, back down again all with an intoxicating harmony. There is also a steady flow of exquisitely framed shots that offer much to look at and admire while capturing the film’s shifting moods and tones. And of course Mark Bridges’ incredible costume design that should be winning every award it’s eligible for.

The deeper you get into “Phantom Thread” the more there is to absorb. Shades of Hitchcock can be seen from the more obvious “Rebecca” to the more subtle “Psycho”. There are also those rare moments of humor that come at the most unexpected moments. But at its core is a peculiar romance between a reticent yet domineering man and a woman unwilling to play her part in his game. Watching the stunning Daniel Day-Lewis lose himself in another role and an eye-opening Vicky Krieps is an absolute delight. And despite what we think we know about the three central characters, Anderson turns it all on its head.

“Phantom Thread” reveals a dialed-back Paul Thomas Anderson in top form. His writing is spellbinding. His direction is daring and confident. The look of the film is as beautiful as rare Flemish lace. The performances are sublime. Anderson left me hungry to go back and examine every frame, camera movement, and character expression. And remember that wonderful sensation I spoke of earlier? This move stirred those feelings and reminded me of why movies remain my favorite form of storytelling.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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TOP 5 LEADING ACTOR PERFORMANCES OF 2012

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Today I wrap up my look back at the best acting from the 2012 movie year. We’ve looked at the supporting categories and the lead actress category. Now it’s time to look at the lead actors. Just like every other field this year, the lead actor category is loaded with great performances and with deserving actors who blew me away. It was crushing to leave some names off but I think this list sums up the category perfectly. There is a huge range of performances here covering everything from small budget independent films to monster sized blockbusters. But the one constant are the performances and these guys were great. So here are the Top 5 Leading Actor Performances from 2012 (according to me)…

#5 – JACK BLACK – (“Bernie”)

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I just can’t believe I’m actually putting Jack Black on my list of top lead actor performances. Let me say for the 100th time – I’m no Jack Black fan. But I’ve got to admit that his performance as the eccentric Bernie Tiede deserves to be on this list. Black’s loud, in-your-face brand of stupid comedy just doesn’t work for me but here he really dials it back a bit. A lot of it is due to writer and director Richard Linklater but I have to giver Black a lot of credit. I loved this performance in “Bernie” and it’s a big step in the right direction for Black.

#4 – DANIEL CRAIG – (“Skyfall”)

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Daniel Craig won’t make any critics lists and you won’t see his name down as a Golden Globe or Academy Award nominee. That’s a shame because he should be. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his run as James Bond and his work in “Skyfall” is his best yet. Craig has all the characteristics of Bond – suave, hunky, and tough. But he tones down the cheese and brings a much more grounded and flawed character to the screen. But make no mistake, he still kicks a ton of butt. Craig packages all of this up with his “Skyfall” performance and he deserves to be mentioned with the best of the year.

#3 – JOAQUIN PHOENIX – (“THE MASTER”)

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Regardless of my mixed feelings on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master“, I had no mixed feelings about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic World War 2 veteran battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Anderson’s script takes Freddie down several dark holes, and even though they don’t always translate well on screen, Phoenix is riveting as this deeply damaged character. All of his past recent off screen antics can sometime cloud the fact that he is a brilliant actor. He reminds of that in “The Master“.

#2 – HUGH JACKMAN – (“Les Miserables”)

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I have to admit, I’ll never look at Wolverine the same way. Hugh Jackman starring in a musical may surprise some people but the actor has a history on stage. In Tom Hooper’s ambitious film version of the “Les Miserables” musical, Jackman takes the lead role and knocks it out of the park. Some have questioned his singing. It didn’t bother me a bit. But it wasn’t just his singing that made this performance so strong. Jackman invests everything, both physically and emotionally, into the part and that sold me more than anything else. He’s great in this film and he deserves the praise he’s getting.

#1 – DANIEL DAY-LEWIS – (“Lincoln”)

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I know it’s the popular pick and I know that Daniel Day-Lewis is the front runnuer for the Best Actor Oscar. Good! He should be! Sometimes people just get it right. How could I not go with Day-Lewis in what was the most towering and immersive performance of 2012. Nobody throws every part of themself into a role like Day-Lewis. In “Lincoln” he manages to take an incredibly well known historical figure and give us something we have never seen before. His looks, his voice, his expressions – everything is unique. Day-Lewis is the best and this is yet another brilliant performance to add to his resume. If he doesn’t get the Best Actor Oscar they shouldn’t have the award.

So that wraps up my humble opinion of the four major acting categories for the 2012 movie year. It was a year that reminded us of the wealth of talent both old and new in the movies today. Here’s hoping we have just as much to talk about at the end of 2013.

TOP 5 SUPPORTING ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2012

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It’s that time of year again. People are reflecting back on the 2012 movie year and throwing lists together. The Golden Globes are done and the Academy Award nominees are announced. Last week I looked at the movies and listed my Top 10 Films of 2012. This week I’m looking at the performances. As I did last year, I’m going to break down the four major acting categories and list my personal Top 5 performances of 2012 from each. I’m a firm believer in ladies first so today we start with the Top Supporting Actress Performances of 2012 (according to me).

#5 – AMY ADAMS (“The Master”)

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I’m a big fan of Amy Adams and throughout her career she has shown a great range. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” she plays Peggy Dodd, the wife a philosophical sect leader. While her husband seems to be in control and it’s his flash and pizzazz that gets all of the attention, there are several scenes where Peggy looks to be pulling the strings. Adams embodies this mysterious and sometimes calculating character and she has no problem holding her own with the other heavyweight performances.

#4 – JUDI DENCH (“Skyfall”)

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We all know Judi Dench is a great actress. She is one of those performers who you know is going to deliver regardless of what she’s in. One of her most recognized roles is “M” from the James Bond films. In “Skyfall” she reprised that role but, unlike the previous Bond appearences, here she is given a lot more to do. Dench gets to flex her acting muscles as her “M” character is fleshed out a bit more. We also get to experience a better look at her relationship with Bond. Dench is fantastic and she doesn’t miss a beat.

#3 – SALLY FIELD (“Lincoln”)

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I remember when I heard Sally Field was going to play Mary Todd Lincoln a smile spread across my face. And as expected she doesn’t diappoint. This was a tough role, not just because she was playing the wife of Abraham Lincoln, but because she was sharing scenes with the great Daniel Day-Lewis. But Field is spectacular in “Lincoln” and the on screen chemistry between her and Day-Lewis is undeniable. Field uncovers the uniquenesses and complexities of her character with great craft. This was a spot-on performance and certainly worthy of praise.

#2 – CECILE DE FRANCE (“The Kid with a Bike”)

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I don’t know how many people have seen the touching French and Belgian film “The Kid with a Bike” but more people should. It’s a beautifully crafted and deeply moving film from the Dardenne brothers about a young boy unable to accept that his father has left him. The performance from de France is an absolute joy to watch and you never doubt her character’s sincerity or tenderness. It’s unfortunate that her great work has flew under the radar but I can promise that if you watch this film you’ll be blown away.

#1 – ANNE HATHAWAY (“Les Miserables”)

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I’ve been a luke warm Anne Hathaway fan for a while now. But I’m slowly growing more and more impressed with her work. My excitement reached it’s pinnacle after seeing her in “Les Miserables“. Talk about a heartfelt and devestating performance. From her physical acting to her beautiful voice, Hathaway stole the show and had me wishing her part was bigger. For me, this performance was the whole package – the voice, the expressions, the emotions. It all flows naturally out of Hathaway. I felt for her and I cried with her. This was the best supporting performance by an actress from 2012.

Day 1 is done and my favorite supporting ladies have been given their due. So which performances did I miss? What was your favorite? The guys are next. Tomorrow I’ll throw out the Top 5 Supporting Actor Performances of 2012.

“THE MASTER” – 3.5 STARS

The last time we saw acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson was in 2007 with his sensational drama “There Will Be Blood”. With it he solidified his position as a film critic’s favorite. Now he’s back with his next movie “The Master”. As with every other feature film Anderson has made, he both wrote and directed this audacious drama that can sometimes be completely captivating and other times utterly frustrating. There are some award worthy performances and loads of ambition, just as you would expect from a Paul Thomas Anderson feature. But just as there were moments where I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, there were also times when the story seemed to bog down in the deliberate pacing and slight self-indulgence that keeps this from being a true classic. Nonetheless Anderson presses all the right critics buttons so this will be a contender come awards season.

No one can deny Anderson’s filmmaking skills. “The Master” looks every bit of an epic, landmark film. There are a number of scenes that stand out due to their framing and camera work alone. Anderson uses several amazing tracking shots sometimes shifting focus three or four times while still maintaining a single fluid shot. He also uses several fantastic locations and captures them with his stylish and precise camera work. I also have to mention the way he recreates America in 1950 both narratively and visually. The wardrobes, hairstyles, furnishings, etc. all work perfectly right down to the smallest details. Anderson takes no shortcuts on selling the audience on the period and that’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to attach yourself to the story.

It’s in this 1950 America that we are introduced to Freddie Quell. He’s played by Joaquin Phoenix who gives the performance of his career. While not as breathtaking as Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”, Phoenix is magnetic portraying a man emotionally scarred from his time in World War 2, or at least that’s what I presume. Freddie’s life is in shambles. He’s a raging alcoholic who resorts to drinking his own concoctions made from paint thinner and any other chemical he can get his hands own. He also has a twisted sex disorder that pops up here and there. His alcoholism shows to be a burden that’s destroying his life and in turn plays an important part in the film. On the other hand, his sex addiction felt terribly underwritten and only contributed by adding a handful of uncomfortable scenes that quite frankly I could have done without. But as I said, Phoenix is brilliant and there’s no way he should be denied an Oscar nomination for this bold performance.

Freddie ends up crossing paths with a charismatic leader of a group called “The Cause” named Lancaster Dodd (wonderfully played by Philip Seymour-Hoffman). Dodd is a self-proclaimed philosopher and intellectual with a steady and devoted group of followers. He also has a way with words and Freddie is drawn to Dodd and his movement. Dodd takes a special liking to Freddie at one point calling him his guinea pig but clearly growing more fond of him later. Dodd is able to suppress Freddie’s mental issues to the point where Freddie begins to buy into his teachings. But his inner turmoil resurfaces on several occasions making him more and more conflicted.

The story often moves with an amazing rhythm and Phoenix and Hoffman share some mesmerizing scenes together. But for such a hyped picture, I was surprised to see the overall lack of plot. I mean “The Master” features some of the best scenes you’ll see in the theaters this year, but honestly, there’s not a lot that happens in the long running time. But a bigger problem with “The Master” is that for the entire film Anderson keeps the audience at arm’s length from what we are seeing. We’re never allowed to fully get to know the characters who truly are the driving forces behind the entire picture. Anderson wants us to do a lot of guesswork and come to our own conclusions. But for me, a little less ambiguity and more intimacy with the characters would have been a big plus.

I don’t mean for this review to have such a negative tone. There are some really good things to like about “The Master”. Anderson’s style of filmmaking is about as good as you will find and it really shines here. The movie looks and feels right at home in post-World War 2 1950 and the cinematography will blow you away. The film is also helped by tremendous performances from Phoenix and Hoffman and I didn’t even talk about Amy Adams’ strong work. Expect to hear all of their names when the Oscar nominations are announced. But while Anderson’s story is good, it doesn’t pack the punch of some of his other pictures particularly “There Will Be Blood”. It’s fascinating to watch these characters but I couldn’t help but want more. That combined with a few pacing issues and a couple of scenes I could have done without keep this from being the Best Picture frontrunner that many are touting it as.