(On Cable TV, October 2018) Let’s face it—a Paul Thomas Anderson film taking place in the 1950s British haute couture world isn’t exactly the kind of pulse-pounding excitement I prefer from movies. But Phantom Thread does work—by getting us insidiously interested at the quirks of a demanding fashion designer (Daniel Day-Lewis, up to his usual high standards in a familiar role) and then slowly leading us into a spectacularly dysfunctional romance that, we come to understand, is the only kind of love that will be deemed acceptable by such a person. As usual for Anderson’s films, there is a lot more under the surface than the tranquil façade will suggest—when it gets down to business, Phantom Thread has a lot to say about the toxic archetype of the eccentric genius and the toll they take on everyone else in their personal orbit. It may dress it up in fancy clothing, but it remains a character study and a commentary on the kind of OCD superhero (cranky but so competent!) that pop culture obsesses over lately. Amazingly enough, Day-Lewis finds a good sparring partner in relative newcomer Vicky Krieps, with different acting styles and temperaments complementing each other. While the film moves slowly, it does have enough moments of humour and gender-switched Gothic romance to keep things interesting. I can’t say I loved Phantom Thread, but I liked it quite a bit more than I thought I would, and that’s a praise enough for me.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) Harsh but triumphant, In the Name of the Father tells the upsetting story of Gerry Conlon, a Belfast resident falsely accused of murder by the British Police and locked up for fifteen years before being set free, although not before seeing his father die in prison. Much of the movie is a showcase for Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Conlon expertly while the character changes from an easy-going twenty-year-old to an almost-forty-something ex-convict. Jim Sheridan’s direction can be aggressive at time, with strong music cues dominating the opening section of the film, then pivoting toward a justice-reclaimed narrative later during the movie. In the Name of the Father’s showcase sequence is almost certainly the interrogation that closes the first act, as brutal a display of dystopian police authority as can be imagined. While In the Name of the Father is not always easy to watch, it is compelling enough to elevate the oft-familiar subject. Saffron Burrows can be seen in a small (but tall) role early in the movie.
(Video On-demand, March 2013) In the stream of critical adulation for Lincoln, mark me down as undecided: Maybe it’s because I’m not American, but this presidential biography feels flat, dark and dull compared to the material’s potential. I am not objecting to the film’s initial refusal to bow to the mythology of the character: some of Lincoln’s best moments come in presenting the president as a canny politician rather than a heroic folk-figure. Unfortunately, Lincoln gets more self-important as it advances, yet still feels unnecessarily dull throughout. The dark cinematography doesn’t help things, and while the film is not bad at building a political thriller about the passing of a bill rather than a fully satisfying portrait of a historical figure, it still feels overblown for what it tries to do. At least Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as Lincoln, presenting a solid portrayal that manages to combine both Lincoln’s historical importance with a sense of the man behind the myth. (The supporting cast is also very strong, with special mention to Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens) Still, Lincoln fails to fully satisfying: Perhaps too long, perhaps too leisurely, perhaps too ordinary for a film signed by Steven Spielberg.
(On DVD, February 2011) Subtle, nuanced and character-driven, The Age of Innocence nonetheless never has to struggle to keep our interest. As a piece of American Victoriana, it’s almost endlessly fascinating: the New-York upper-class of 1870 had issues to work through, and director Martin Scorsese lavishly places us in the middle of that society. As a drama of manners, The Age of Innocence carefully establishes the rules than bind the characters, then follow them as they try (or don’t try) to rebel against them. Given that this is a Scorsese picture, both script and direction are self-assured and surprisingly timeless. Even the voiceover, usually a sign of lazy screenwriting, here adds another layer of polish to the film. Production credentials are impeccable, with careful costuming, set design and even split-second glimpses at elaborate dishes. Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as a deeply conflicted man of his time, while Michelle Pfeiffer reminds us of how good she was in her heyday and Winona Rider turns in an underhanded performance as a constantly-underestimated ingénue. It all builds up to a quiet but shattering emotional climax that amply justifies the picture’s sometimes-lazy rhythm. Worth seeing and pondering as one realizes that the protagonist pays for the right crime but for the wrong reasons.
(In theatres, February 2010) I’m favourably disposed towards musicals, but my indulgence felt its limits with Nine, a somewhat limp take on Fellini and his approach to cinema. Some things work really well: the atmosphere of bygone Italy, the portrait of the director as a hedonistic monomaniac, the flashy cinematography, the eye-popping line-up of female stars… it adds up to a project with potential. Seeing Fergie deliver the film’s best musical number won’t leave anyone indifferent, but it’s more fun to see Kate Hudson pop her way through “Cinema Italiano”, the film’s bounciest number, and Penelope Cruz vamp it up in fancy lingerie. Lucky Daniel Day-Lewis, playing a director stuck in the middle of so much female attention. But in most of its musical numbers, the film has trouble distinguishing itself through a series of mopey ballads. The plot troubles multiply, but they all lead to a narrative crash from which the film never recovers: there’s only an epilogue to suggest that our protagonist is on his way back. There is, in other words, little pay-off for all that came before, and a surprising amount of boredom on the way there. Nine is not a film that involves; it prefers to be looked at and occasionally admired for its art direction. Which is really too bad, since its first half promises a lot more than it delivers in the second.