“Phantom Thread” Fashion, Power and Poison – Film Review

Phantom Thread Top.jpgI always feel the need to prepare myself, at the very least, for an unfamiliar world before I see a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. That’s a given. As part of that preparation I did some serious research ahead of my recent viewing of Mr. Anderson’s latest film, Phantom Thread. Everyone knows by now this is Daniel Day-Lewis’s last film. Who voted for that? Loosing a huge talent like Mr. Day-Lewis means a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of the universe has been set in motion. It’s like the passing of the torch with no one to pass it to. He is a pure in camera actor. Method. One of a kind.

Mr. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrity fashion designer and dressmaker in 1950’s London. He tends to the design, construction and fitting of the dresses, as well as CIO, chief idiosyncratic officer. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) takes care of the business end of things as well as manages, controls actually, Woodcock’s life. Reynolds is easily distracted and cannot have his schedule disrupted even in the slightest way. If it is upset, or “ambushed” as he puts it, his concentration breaks for the entire day.

In the first reel we see him at breakfast with Cyril and his current muse who has apparently run out of the juice she used to have to propel Reynolds onto the next design. This prompts Cyril to send her packing. Sister suggests Reynolds take a weekend getaway to the country to clear his head. Capital idea.

They have a country home in addition to their posh London residence where Reynolds can go to collect his thoughts and in this case perhaps mourn the loss of yet another young muse.

At a local breakfast place the next day he is instantly charmed by Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a young fair-skinned, red-haired waitress who is introduced to us via a clumsy stumble. She takes his breakfast order which is large enough to feed a team of carpenters. Welsh rabbit with an egg on top, but not too runny. Scones, bacon, sausages and lapsang tea, etc. Reynolds has a big appetite when happy. He asks her to dinner and the muse grooming begins.

Mr. Anderson sets-up a frame story that he returns to throughout the film. It’s Alma sitting by a fire in a drawing room of some sort and telling a man the story of her and Reynolds. I think this is a terrific device and it helps us in the long run to sort out the three acts.

Vicky Krieps as Alma

At dinner Reynolds tells Alma about how he sews secrets into the garments he makes. Notes, coins, even locks of hair. Fabric is his canvas and his paintings (dresses) are worn by his clientele.

He takes Alma back to his country home and describes his love for his mother, who taught him his trade. Reynolds made his mother’s wedding dress when she remarried following the death of his father. He had to do it all by himself. His nanny wouldn’t dare help him. It was thought that if you assisted in the making of someone else’s wedding dress you would be cursed and would never marry. That curse could be cast even if all you did was touch the dress. A beautifully tailored dress has immense power.

Mr. Anderson introduces us to the sorrow in Reynold’s life early on. His sadness is potentially inescapable and only expands as the arc of the story unfolds and we see Reynolds devolve into child-like state. Eventually sadness emerges as one of the most important elements in the story.

He wants to make Alma a dress and begins taking measurements. He asks Alama to lift her arm or look up as he lays the tape across her body; but they are really instructions. She willingly follows. Has she become a mannequin? Cyril arrives to check out the new muse candidate. Reynolds calls out the numbers to Cyril who records them in a ledger.

Cyril tells Alma she is a perfect physical specimen. Her digits combined with the girlish charm that has enchanted Reynolds seals the deal.

In no time at all Alma is back at their Georgian apartment in London and is seamlessly assimilated into the House of Woodcock.

Each season takes more and more out of Reynolds as he labors to complete his spring or fall line. In his desire to create the one of a kind wedding dress for a Countess he has been dressing her entire life, he hits a brick wall over breakfast. Everything revolves around breakfast in the house. Alma suddenly grates on his nerves as she butters her bread and pours the morning tea. Cyril suggests that perhaps it’s time for Alma to depart, but Alma is smarter than the average muse, at least the ones these two have dealt with.

Phantom Reynolds.jpg
Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock

This is where the story turns toward psychological thriller. We see Hitchcock influences enter the film’s design as the three of them battle for control, but each in very different ways.

Reynolds becomes ill and is forced to curl-up in his bed unable to do anything and unwilling to see a doctor. Alma seizes this moment for herself. She alone can take care of Reynold’s needs and eventually he welcomes it. The power of control shifts to Alma. Cyril is furious that her control levers no longer function as efficiently. But the business must continue. Dresses must be made and fittings completed.

Once Reynolds recovers he asks Alma to marry him.

The House of Woodcock is all Cyril has. Everyone seems to have only one thing and are terrified that it will be taken away. She encouraged Reynolds to find new muses to inspire him, and showed them the door when there abilities ran out. But Alma is different. She wedges herself in-between brother and sister, gives herself a promotion from muse to wife and becomes an unexpected threat to Cyril.

Mr. Anderson served as his own director of photography, a first for him. The result is a lush look to the picture filled with jewel tones, purples, brilliant oranges, reds, royal navy, yellow and green. It feels like a 1950’s picture with its inevitable trajectory racing toward intrigue and tightly packed with lots of delicious details.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Kreips as Alma

Whenever we see Reynolds driving he is speeding recklessly from place to place as if fearful of being caught outside the safe zones of his apartment, country house or favorite brasserie.

We glimpse almost no life for Reynolds outside his studio. No newspapers or television. The only time we see him listen to the wireless was on New Year’s eve. Perhaps he was making a desperate attempt to connect with a world that Alma knew and didn’t want to give up.

When we do get outside, the daylight is usually overcast and gray. The narrow house and winding stairway represents his vessel of creativity. His personal currency is routine and it makes him its slave. He knows steady flow is absolutely required for him to work. If that flow would ever be interrupted, all will dissolve. In the end Reynolds and Alma settle on a symbiotic relationship that I believe few will see coming.

Jonny Greenwood’s score is everywhere in this film. It fills the scenes but doesn’t overpower. I prefer scores that know when to be silent. In Phantom Thread the music really doesn’t give us much of a break, but it didn’t bother me. I could still feel the acting.

I wonder what the Academy will do with this picture in the current climate we find ourselves in. I loved this picture and all of the performances. Mr. Day-Lewis of course. Vicky Kreips plays Alma beautifully. She balances naiveté with a slyness and holds her own in her scenes with DDL. Lesley Manville’s Cyril made my blood run cold several times with her steely eyes and strong comebacks. Highly recommended.

Side note. Between Reynolds, Cyril and Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep’s character in Steven Spielberg’s The Post) you will witness a master class on how to hold horn-rimmed glasses.

Listen to Jonny Greenwood’s score on Spotify. Track 13 (of course) “House of Woodcock” is the piano love theme.

My Podcast of this review on Soundcloud here

Lincoln – Film Review


Lincoln reminds us that there have always been troubling times and politics is a dirty business. Politics is about compromises struck by people with violently clashing differences. If there can be no compromise then we have the gridlock of nothingness. People suffer and die outside Washington everyday while inside the dome, maddening brinksmanship takes place. Imagine the country consumed by a civil war that produces nearly six hundred casualties per day and has an active slave trade of millions of men, women and children. Six hundred twenty-five thousand souls lost their lives in the war between the North and the South, fought on the brink of expanding war technology such as ironclads and repeating guns. The art critic Robert Hughes while writing his history of American art, said, “The Civil War was America’s Iliad and its Holocaust as well.” This was Lincoln’s world. Steven Spielberg’s masterly film and Daniel Day-Lewis’ interpretation of Lincoln are spellbinding. In the end it’s about one thing; leadership.

The picture opens with a grinding battle full of complexities and powers raging in pools of mud. Despite the advancement of weaponry, the fighting was still largely hand to hand, which was the main reason for the high casualty rate. It’s late in the year 1864 and President Lincoln has just won a second term. He has set two objectives. Pass the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery and turn war into peace while preserving the United States as one country. Obviously an over achiever.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) spent five years crafting Lincoln. His inspiration and source was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals. In that work she closely examined Lincoln as a man, a father and a president. Mr. Kushner delivered an exhaustive five hundred page script to Spielberg with a note of apology for the length. It was eventually filtered down to cover only a few months of Lincoln’s life. It’s an amazing piece of writing that evokes Shakespeare for it’s elegance of language and refusal to lower itself to any specific audience. It feels like it was written for the stage and stays true to the story and the challenges of the times. Every actor is given even weight regardless of the role, and aside from the scenes in the chaotic House of Representatives, the actors don’t talk over each other. They speak and listen. Pause and speak again. There is terrific use of silence which draws us even further into the setting. It’s an amazingly quiet film.

Mr. Spielberg gives us another exquisitely crafted effort in a style that started with Schindler’s List and continued in Saving Private Ryan. Realism shot through the lens of drama and compassion. This film was not made by the adult-child Spielberg we enjoyed in E.T. and Indiana Jones, but the serious man who points his camera at history and conjures it to the screen. Spielberg shows us what life is like in the White House but it’s Daniel Day-Lewis who brings us into the mind of Lincoln.

Lincoln WorkingMr. Day-Lewis is beyond superb. He inhabits Lincoln in an almost ghostly manner. A soft voice that demands to be heard and his tall, thin frame draped in blankets and cloaks cuts a significant physical presence. Stovepipe hat worn, held and used as storage for speeches adds to his height. Lincoln didn’t really care about clothing, he wanted to be a man of the people. I was never aware Day-Lewis was playing Lincoln. His performance, surely to be an Oscar winner, is mesmerizing. He shapes a Lincoln that is witty, smart and a seasoned politician who loves to tell rambling stories, driven to solve two of the biggest problems that have ever faced this nation. We see a tortured, torn man who endured much personal pain but was loved by the people in a way not often found in presidential history.

The filmmakers successfully surround Lincoln with a lively group of characters. Sally Field as Mary Todd delivers a tempered performance of the frequently overwrought First Lady, but rises to the occasion when required. She brings us the strong woman behind the man and does not back down from disagreeable politicians despite the fact she frequently finds herself on the emotional brink. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward reminds Lincoln that what he is trying to do is impossible. That in no way dissuades Lincoln. Strathairn as Seward knows the President intimately, having lost the nomination to Lincoln much to the surprise of many. They constantly challenge each other. Tommy Lee Jones relishes his role as Thaddeus Stevens who is the Ted Kennedy of the day, working an entire career to accomplish one very large thing. Both of these actors bring to life their characters and are the oxygen for the thirteenth amendment. The rest of the performances, and there are lots of them, are all top shelf.

There is much to take in. The filmmakers know this and design everything around simple and subtle. The sets are classic and interesting, but the lighting is reserved for the characters. Inside scenes, particularly the White House, are dark at the frame’s edges to match the mood of the nation. When the camera is outside the mood is divided between civilian and soldier. The Capitol building is bathed in bright sunlight and appears as brilliant marble white. A stark contrast to the scrim draped blue that fogs the screen as Lincoln meanders through a battlefield on horseback littered with dead soldiers. Janusz Kaminski (cinematographer) keeps his camera on straight, smooth lines. If feels more akin to photography than filming, evoking Matthew Brady. No shocking movements or radical palette changes.

“I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure these votes.” — Abraham Lincoln

The majority of the screen time is spent inside the White House. It’s Lincoln’s home and we see how he lives and interacts with his family. Being president means you will get unexpected visitors from little ones. Spielberg effectively weaves both of Lincoln’s living sons, Tad and Robert, into the story, bringing the father/president Lincoln dynamic into an already complex setting.

Lincoln was a master strategist and tactician, always looking forward to the future. He took very specific actions to set the stage and cause others to reconsider. His voice does the heavy lifting but from time to time he uses touch as an exclamation point. When he wants something he gets in your physical space. Sits on a table, pours you a drink or slaps your shoulders. Lyndon Johnson had that style of physical persuasion. So too did Bill Clinton. Irresistible forces of nature sealing the deal with a clutch of the arm or a double handshake.

The score by John Williams is quiet, like most everything else in the film, except of course for the Congressmen. Mr. Williams recalls, “The dramatic and atmospheric needs of the film required very separate pieces that I realize I’d have to compose anew.” He created a number of different themes to deliver the greatest impact. Outside the film I don’t believe anyone will recognize what he has written, but inside the film, it advances our emotional connection.

John Rawls, an American political philosopher states it best.

“The politician thinks about the next election; the statesman thinks about the next generation.”

The film’s official web site is thelincolnmovie.com and is interesting, but a bit of an afterthought. There is however an excellent free iBook available through the iTunes store, Lincoln: Discover the Story. It is full of interesting facts and video interviews of the cast and filmmakers. If you get a chance I highly recommend you visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. It’s amazing and suitable for all ages. I grew up in Springfield and thus have a deep connection with Mr. Lincoln. His home is there as well as his grave site. I have visited each many times as well as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Highly recommended.

Photo credits: Dreamworks Pictures – Twentieth Century Fox – Participant Media

There Will Be Blood – Film Review

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest offering, There Will Be Blood, is a departure from his large ensemble works Boogie Nights and Magnolia. This muscular, tragic film was penned for the screen by Mr. Anderson, based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil.

Pic opens at the very end of the 1800’s when America was moving into the industrial age. Oil was the new gold and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) saw an enormous opportunity. Mr. Day-Lewis is the face and voice of the entire film. One of our most talented actors working today, he delivers a tour de force performance. As Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, his spine was stiff and straight, towering over everyone in Paradise Square. Here his back is bent from years of hard labor in the wells, but he still seems to be the tallest. Like Bill the Butcher, it becomes obvious Daniel Plainview is an unstable and dangerous man. He is utterly and completely devoted to gaining enough wealth from oil to allow him to get away from everyone, forever. He does not speak of the past, invests in people only when it serves his agenda and carries a grudge the likes of which you’ve never seen. In a contemplative monologue he unleashes a wicked stream of consciousness, “I hate most people. There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want no one else to succeed.” You get the gist.

Photo Credit: Paramount Vantage

The first 15 minutes of the film go by without any spoken dialog, which helps us focus on the work and considerable skill needed to successfully strike oil. Already well established, “I’m an oil man and you will agree,” Plainview meets a young man who tells him Standard Oil is buying up tracts of land in a small town in California. With considerable drilling experience under his belt, Plainview visits the area and talks the town folk into leasing him the land to prospect for oil. His careful and deliberate choice of words is at the level of a con artist taking a mark. One family in particular, The Sunday’s, are first to sign. Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) is the son and a man of God. He has a talent for giving revival-type sermons and expects Plainview to help finance his new church. He considers himself a worthy opponent to Daniel. Big mistake.

Planview uses his 10 year old son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) to help lend credibility to his “family business” angle, and quickly signs all but one hold out. Early on in the project H.W. is severely injured in an accident and Daniel sends him to San Francisco for specialized help.

Out of nowhere, a man claiming to be his brother Henry appears, to tell him their father is dead. He shares a note from their sister to prove his lineage. Daniel takes Henry under his roof, and to a business meeting with the Standard Oil executives who offer him $1 million for his wells. Daniel refuses, threatens the execs, and instead, cuts a deal with Union Oil to build a pipeline to carry his black crude straight to the Pacific Ocean.

The story takes a dark turn as a murder is committed, and Daniel finds himself trapped by the actions of the lone land holdout. Plainview must consent to be saved by Eli in exchange for the land lease, something he finds very difficult to do in a scene that is excruciating to watch. H.W. returns to his father and strikes up a relationship with Mary Sunday, the youngest daughter, that leads to marriage.

Liquids are the catalyst and cause of greed and desire for power. Everyone has their liquid of choice. Daniel’s is of course oil. He examines it as if it were an endangered species, smelling, tasting, burning it. He rubs it in Eli’s face in a fit of rage. Eli has his baptism water and takes his revenge on Daniel during the fake redemption sequence.

The closing scene is a jaw-dropper. Daniel has made a fortune and built a mansion for himself including a bowling alley. He uses the main hall for a firing range. In the end he has it out with his son H.W. as well as Eli Sunday, who visits him to get his once promised donation.

Anderson and Day-Lewis – Photo Credit: The New York Times

Film is masterful in technique. You are so completely engrossed in the lives of the people and the story that the 2 hour 30 minute plus running time goes by without a squirm. Shot predominately outside in a beautiful but barren landscape, Mr. Anderson authentically captures the sights and sounds of early 20th century America. But it’s the dialog that propels the drama. Everyone is polite in a matter-of-fact manner, trying hard to transform the wild west into civilization. Jonny Greenwood’s score is sometimes loud, frequently haunting and more often than not seems out of place for the early 1900’s. But it’s right at home in Plainview’s world.

Highly recommended for the serious film goers who appreciate this craft being practiced at the highest levels.