Tuesday, May 1, 2018

"The Post" and "Phantom Thread"

Let's finish up the Oscar contenders.

I was looking forward to "The Post," Steven Spielberg's dramatization of the tumultuous decisionmaking behind the Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers back in 1971.  The film has an all-star cast, lead by Tom Hanks as newspaper editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham. All of Spielberg's usual sterling collaborators are listed in the credits.  "The Post" also has added bonus of being very timely, deliberately positioned as a rebuke to the age of fake news and outrage-based journalism.

Initially, everything seems to be on the right track as we watch the Post's newsroom rally to cover the unfolding story around the Pentagon Papers, while Graham struggles with the newspaper's IPO and her evolving leadership role.  Hanks is in a more acerbic part than usual, and Streep in a more understated one, and they're both great. I like the look of the picture, which has several obvious homages to "All the President's Men," and the smaller performances from Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, and others.  But as time goes on, more and more distracting little Spielberg-isms keep creeping into the frame. There's the running joke about Bradlee's daughter's lemonade business. And the literal quoting of the Supreme Court decision to underline the lesson of the day. In the end, pretty much every attempt to lionize the fourth estate comes across as hokey and outdated instead of inspiring.

"The Post," like much of Spielberg's other recent output, plays like a throwback to a much older breed of motion picture, or actually two at once.  Occasionally it felt like he was making a gritty '70s social drama with a script from a romanticized prestige pic from the '40s or '50s. The heroes are larger than life, and the dialogue can't help but make a few grand pronouncements full of shining idealism.  The cinematography, however, is moody and stark, full of unglamorous people in glumly utilitarian environments. These tonal clashes aren't too bad, but the film never stops feeling aesthetically odd and unbalanced. I found that most of the movie was still very watchable and enjoyable, showcasing the work of a lot of talented people.  And yet, I couldn't help comparing it negatively to the much simpler, more straightforward "Spotlight" in terms of effective championing of the free press. And it doesn't come close to "All the President's Men" as far as portraying the social and political tensions of post-Vietnam America.

I had no expectations for "The Phantom Thread" at all, and was lucky enough to see the film knowing almost nothing about it except that Paul Thomas Anderson was directing, and Daniel Day Lewis was playing a fashion designer.  Specifically, he plays Reynolds Woodcock, who runs a couture fashion house in 1950s London. He and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) run the business to exacting standards, driven by Reynolds' obsessive attention to detail and his uncompromising adherence to his own set preferences and schedules.  And it's into this strict little world that Reynolds brings Alma (Vicky Krieps), his latest paramour and muse. She agrees to model for him and live with him, but finds the relationship too imbalanced for her tastes. This leads to a nail-biting power struggle between the two of them that pushes both parties to uncomfortable extremes.
I'm not used to domestic dramas and romances being this tense, but I should have expected nothing less from Paul Thomas Anderson.  The film is full of gorgeous imagery, from the painstakingly recreated period gowns to steaming cups of tea to a riotous New Year's party full of colorful revelry.  However, it's the actors who are impossible to take your eyes off of, often playing out incredibly suspenseful scenes in the middle of deceptively elegant settings. One dress fitting doubles as a seduction scene, and another as an exercise in  humiliation and diminishment. The aforementioned party sequence is full of motion and sound, but the overwhelming emotion it conveys is that of loneliness, as we watch Reynolds traverse the cacophony in search of Alma. Daniel Day Lewis is at his very best, playing the prickly Reynolds as one of those infuriating artistic geniuses who has heard far too much praise and is too used to getting his own way.  And it's an absolute delight to find that Vicky Krieps, who is practically unknown in American films, matches him scene for scene, and beat for beat.

One might be tempted to call "Phantom Thread" Anderson's own attempt at a throwback to the moviemaking of a previous era.  However, this proves not to be the case at all. In spite of the period set designs, Jonny Greenwood's lavish instrumental score, and the echoes of many classical romances in the narrative, "Phantom Thread" is very modern in its attitudes toward love and life.  How the story ultimately resolves is anything but traditional. I had a wonderful time with it, because I had absolutely no idea where it was going, or even what genre we were ultimately dealing with. Anderson didn't tip his hand, all the way up to the end, and I'm so glad that he didn't.  This was one of the best surprises I've had at the movies in a while, and one of the best movies of the year, period.

No comments:

Post a Comment