Isle of Dogs (directed by Wes Anderson). 2018.

As the visual design and graphic composition of Wes Anderson’s movies keeps getting more sophisticated,  I cannot resist the enchantment of this stop action movie featuring among other things, mass incarceration, poisoning, unjust laws, a mad dictator of a Japanese city, and a whole island made up of neatly baled trash around which live the exiled creatures, and the rats they co-habit with.

I felt the homage to Japanese culture throughout the movie.  Especially thought provoking were the use of Japanese language and its translations, sometimes through an interpreter voiced by Frances McDormand, sometimes shown in subtitles on the screen.  Anderson used Japanese actors for several key roles, and Ken Watanabe is one of the most effective, as the doctor in search of a cure for the dog flu that has plagued the city.  However, the chief characters are the dogs, and their voices are unmistakably American — Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum and Liev Schreiber, and in minor roles, Scarlett Johannsen and Greta Gerwig.  The plot is about the mad mayor’s ward, a young boy named Atari (Royu Rankin), who goes in search of his faithful dog, Spots. And so begins an odyssey that begins with a plane crash, and ends with a trolley ride.

I admit though I usually love Greta Gerwig, I wish that her character had not been such a key part of the plot, voicing the American exchange student who feels like a great white savior come to rescue the dogs and the lost boy.  I also found  the style of her hair off-putting.

gerwigBut the way each frame of the film is so beautifully composed, the graceful editing from scene to scene, the imaginative and  sudden appearance of an amusement park, the convincing tone of the voices of the dogs, all of these things made me forget the flaws, and yes, the way I can imagine Japanese might be offended by the use of their culture.

The movie hints at the terrible things happening now in American culture: deportation of immigrants, environmental catastrophe caused by overconsumption, unjust rulers taking charge by inventing their own rules instead of following a well established rule of law.  Even though there is a thread of humor, especially when it comes to gossip, and tricks performed by show dogs, there is also a seriousness that is not overwhelming because of the charm of the images, but always present.

The two romances thrown in are more evidence of Wes Anderson’s genius at juggling many balls in the air, and having them explode into fireworks before they land with a satisfying splash in a safe pool of water.

 

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Leaning into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy. Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. 2017.

To watch Goldsworthy on screen you must be patient, and enter his mindset of looking deeply at the earth, its stones, fallen trees, rivers.  The colors of the leaves and flowers are his palette, his media.  He carefully harvests them, and then puts them into his stunning compositions that are a blend of homage and human response to a genius he belongs with.

Watching him penetrate the thorn trees (I do not know the real name for this tree)I wondered and laughed, and then simply marveled at the intention of a man who needs to enter nature, not just to walk along side, but to penetrate it.  He speaks of the two ways of looking at art: you can walk along the hedge, or you can walk through the hedge.  It is clear which path he takes.

Splitting rocks to create sleeping spaces, reminiscent of tombs, or the ancient stones where he went to college, he decides he cannot go into the bedrock.  You can feel his need to honor the sacred earth.  Yet, the movie made me wonder and left me frustrated at the lack of generosity that the filmmaker and perhaps the artist himself declines to share information about the process with which he creates his stunning compositions.  For instance, how did he create the fault line in the long entryway to the museum in San Francisco, the fault line so reminiscent of the earthquake that brought down a major bridge twenty years ago.  Who does he need permission from to use the great fields in Scotland he haunts year after year?  How did he split the rocks of the stone fence and leave a perfectly formed crevice just wide enough for him to walk through?

He speaks lovingly of the great elm felled by disease, a storm, and then even worse, harvested of its wood by woodcutters, as if a person had died.  He even reveals the griefs he has experienced through the separation of his wife, divorce, and death of her who brought him four children, including the lovely Holly, his adult daughter, who now assists him in his compositions.

Because of the ephemeral nature of much of his work, designed to literally blow away in the wind, I am glad to be able to look at the exquisitely produced photographic records of it, and at this film, directed again by Thomas Reidelsheimer (who directed and photographed Rivers and Tides, a 2001 film about the artist), who with graceful distance and clear reverence for the man he documents left me hungry to know a bit more.  What brought him to Brazil?  How did he end up in Gabon?   Who pays for his hired labor?

Still there are indelible images seared in my brain, including the one of Goldsworthy penetrating the thorn trees, and of course, of him lodged in the tree along the side of the road, a haunting human presence inside a work of genius, a tree, which demonstrates how we are part of that spectrum that includes all nature.

on the hill

Goldsworthy literally leaning into the wind

 

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The Shape of Water (2017), directed by Guillermo del Toro.

With Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon.

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Even though the movie concerns an inter-species relationship between a sea creature retrieved from South America and mute cleaning woman working in a Baltimore science lab, the story is narrated in the beginning and ending by an ordinary human man, Giles, acted by Richard Jenkins.  This frames the story as a kind of fairy tale.  Other elements are the supernatural feeling of the sea creature whose gills allow him to breath under and above water and an opening scene which unfolds like a dream.

Giles lives in an apartment above a movie theater.  More stories within stories play out as the movies are shown.  He has been let go from the advertising agency he worked at because of his drinking, and now he spends his time painting what he likes, and trying to pitch new ads, for things like jello.  At one point he is advised that red jello is over — the new jello is green.  There is a lot of green in this movie.

The time period is the sixties when ad men were important, and women kept house, or worked in subservient jobs.  Even though Sally Hawkins has the lead role as Eliza, a mute girl who finds her voice, her part requires her to clean up after men’s piss in restrooms.  She and Octavia Spencer are friends, looking out for each other, and when Eliza decides to save the creature who is doomed by the science experiments of cold war generals, Zelda reluctantly does her best to keep it a secret.

The Cold War era and archetypal villain played by Michael Shannon are rather heavy handed, more suited for a Spy vs Spy cartoon in Mad magazine from the period.  Shannon is such a gifted actor I wish someone would give him a non-psychotic part to show his range.  But here as Richard Strickland he is aggressively opposed to anything that stands in the way of his career.  He carries around a stun stick and applies it with seeming pleasure to the creature and later a colleague he suspects of betrayal.  He swallows his prescriptions (for pain? it is not made clear) by the handful.  The deterioration of his two fingers wrested from his hand while grappling with the creature which  I am sure was supposed to show the decline of his mind and soul, were to me just gross.  Here is where the sensibility of the director veers from mine to such a degree that I cannot fully enjoy his movies because at times I must simply cringe during scenes like this.

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Which brings us back to Richard Jenkins, the reason to see the movie in my mind.  Jenkins has all sorts of subtle ways to prove his humanity, his complexity.  He is rooted right on this earth.  When the sea creature is hinted to have supernatural powers, he hopes they include regenerating his hair so that he will no longer have to wear a toupe.

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You cannot deny the opening scene its power: a complete apartment underwater, with chairs just barely floating in place around a table, pictures on the walls, densely crowded, dark, pale green tinting everything, as if a layer of silt had covered the scene over time, and then been flooded, and all the objects miraculously stayed where they were, while water just flushed over them.  The Shape of Water is truly about water.  Del Toro is an original director with a view of the world that sees the powerless on occasion trying to take charge, only to be brutally defeated.  He does not mind gore and violence to illustrate his vision.  He takes risks that few others dare, and when they work, it is amazing to watch.

restinginbus

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Black Panther (Directed by Ryan Coogler), 2018.

With Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Lupita Nyongo (Nakia), Michael B. Jordan (Erik Killmonger), Angela Bassett (Ramonda), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi).

 

BP poster

Wakanda is a mythical country in central Africa, a utopian state, reached only by special transport underground though the landscape has many plants so benefits from photosynthesis.  Five tribes fight each other for dominance.  The secrets of its power lie in the blue plants with healing properties found in the rainforest, and in its special mineral, vibranium which has super strength.

The movie lays out its back story, and then begins the conflict when the king is assassinated which requires his son to face off in battle with the head of each tribe willing to challenge him.  These opening scenes so crammed with CGI details are a bit stodgy, and lay heavy on the mano a mano battle.  Our hero, T’Challa, prevails, making peace with his opponent.  However another challenger will arrive threatening the whole idyllic way of life for Wakanda.

Women such as T’challa’s ex (Nakia), ( Lupita Nyongo), and T’challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), demonstrate their power politically and intellectually by questioning why the country isn’t doing more to help those with less, and by creating the technology that makes that way of life possible.

Lupita, sister

Lupita Nyongo and Letitia Wright

However, this is a superhero movie, so the battles take up at least fifty percent of the time, and they seemed to take a long time.  I have a hard time with fantasy so I am not the demographic for this movie.  But what is the demographic exactly for this movie?  While it seems pitched for young black males, several of my older white women friends dashed out to see it.  That it took until 2018 to have a breakthrough film made about black culture, written and directed by a black man, filmed by a black cinematographer, is a sign that it is way overdue.  Hollywood cannot solve its diversity problems with one movie, but it is a step in the right direction.  The demographic for this movie is everyone.

The conflict: between the older heir to the throne, and the younger upstart less woke cousin whose appetite for aggression threatens everyone.  There are links between the kingdom of Wakanda and the public housing projects of Oakland.  I did not check the historical veracity of whether the Black Panther political movement got started there, but the child actor who plays Mankiller does much with little as he stares up at the window of his apartment, and into the sky where a magical vehicle flies from Oakland to Wakanda bearing those superheroes away, leaving behind his dead father, and a taste for revenge.  The deeper part of the story that touched me had to do with this being left behind, and being permanently damaged by that.  There is a political yearning throughout the movie.  The king of Wakanda picks up the mantle of many activists and reformers.  Chadwick Boseman’s face reflects the soulful quest of creating a just world.

chadwick

Wakanda looks like a very smartly designed, technologically proficient land where everyone seems to get along (except for those tribes who thirst for the power of the black panthers).

It is hard to tell how much of the movie was photographed outside a studio or without CGI which gives it a very artificial cartoony feel, but that is how most superhero movies are, and why I avoid them.  The absence of natural light makes me long for it.  Combine that with the very loud soundtrack that enhances the pitched battle scenes, and I reveal myself as an old crank who never even liked Star Wars movies when they originally came out because these are movies that glorify war as a way to resolve conflict, and I am deep down a pacifist.

However, if you have to have a superhero movie with all of the male conflicts and battles with cool gadgets, it is gratifying to have someone as perfectly cast as Letitia Wright in the role of T’challa’s sister,  Shuri.  She provides some comic relief combined with peerless braininess, a winning combination.  Martin Freeman stands in as the one white guy who is not evil, and actually helpful to the cause.   The other white man, a villain named Claue is laughably played and must laugh endlessly — poor Andy Serkis. This is a poorly written part poorly acted.  The relief from these scenes of relentless carnage came for me with the line:  Guns! So primitive! from Okoye, one of the King’s protectors, a bald woman who can do amazing things with her spear.

Overall  I admire the movie for its powerful storytelling, its exceptional cast, the styling of the women’s hair (!), costumes, and closing line which leaves the question unanswered by T’Challa: Who are you?

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Three Billboads Outside Ebbing Missouri. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. (2017)

poster three billboardsA mother cannot let a police department rest until the murderer of her daughter is brought to justice.  What we see the mother do:  erect three billboards accusing the police chief of not doing enough, her daughter raped while dying.  What we see the police chief do: let  his office with a bunch of stupid cops loiter over the file as the trail grows cold.

There is a lot of fire in this movie.  The girl is burnt to death in a car.  The billboards are set aflame.  The police station is attacked with molotov cocktails.  A policeman is encased in flames as he runs out of the burning building.

But this is a movie, so the only one who stays dead or injured (with one acute surprising exception) is the girl who sets the plot in motion, the daughter, whose murder the mother means to avenge.  The fires are almost biblical, a sign of the anger the characters feel at the injustice of it all.

France McDormand (Mildred) plays angry, clear eyed, vindictive.  She knows what she wants, but cannot get it the way she goes about it here.  Woody Harrelson  playing Willoughby the police chief, married to a woman with an English accent (Abbie Cornish), so much younger, with two adorable daughters, strained credibility..  So much sudden violence in contrast with the idyllic family of the police chief, interspersed with the near imbecility of the policeman whose story this really is, makes for a very dark story.

Rockwell, McDormand

 Rockwell and McDormand face off.

Because it is the racist cop Dixon’s (Sam Rockwell) awakening, after reading a letter from a dead man, that makes the story move forward.  Up until then it is revenge porn and characteristic McDonagh dialogue, full of snap and bristling with truth about the human condition. (Example: ” But he’s dying!”   “We’re all dying!”)

on a date

McDormand and Dinklage

The fine acting could not overcome the deep depression this movie left me with: that Hollywood movies depict small towns as repositories of stupid people, unwilling or not able to do their jobs; that violence sudden and graphic is what we want to experience in the theater (I had to to cover my eyes at times but wish I could have covered my ears as well, as several heads were kicked in).   It just left me in a very bad mood.  Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, perform their parts perfectly.  McDonagh has written another screenplay that features dwarves who are constantly referred to as midgets to prove how ignorant and cruel Americans are.  Peter Dinklage deserves better than this.    We all deserve better than this.

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Phantom Thread. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 2017.

With Daniel Day Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps

lesley manville
Lesley Manville has perfect posture as she marches into the office of her brother’s fashion house,  drawing in the viewer with her commanding even military gait. She wears a beautifully tailored dress, her hair is pulled back in a no nonsense coiffure, and she is clearly sure of what she will do next. The space she inhabits has a classic beaux arts design, with high ceilings, the curtains opening the oversize windows to the stylish London circle outside. She joins her brother for their daily breakfast in silence.

Paul Thomas Anderson makes movies about men who are domineering, masterful, yet unable to be intimate or tender with anyone.  The Master, There Will be Blood, and Magnolia all feature fascinating, nearly repellent male characters. In Phantom Thread, Daniel Day Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, as opposite in style to Plainview in There Will Be Blood as you can be. The scene where we watch him shaving, brushing his hair, tying his tie, makes clear how high his aesthetic standards are. With Woodcock’s character, the only person in his life is his sister with a masculine name, Cyril, who executes his every command without being asked.  Who would need a wife with such a second in command?

The story unfolds as the brilliant fashion designer is thrown off balance by a woman he tries not to fall in love with, but who has nearly conquered him, the way a mountain climber finally summits the Himalayas.

On the day after he has discarded a woman who demanded his attention at breakfast (you must not make any noise at breakfast in the Woodcock household), he meets a charming, down to earth waitress, Alma (Vickey Krieps) and the rapport is instantaneous. Krieps bears a striking resemblance to Julianne Moore, an actress favored by Anderson in her early days.  Anderson has a way of extracting unforgettable performances from his cast, partly because of the strength of his script, its strange hypnotic qualities, and the aura of place.

Phantom Thread refers to the messages sewn into the haute couture garments Woodcock fashions for his clients. Wedding gowns are especially fraught, so carry an anti-curse phrase. It was Woodcock’s mother’s wedding gown that started his career as a designer. A haunting scene features this dress, and casts a fairy tale glow. There are other references to fairy tales, for instance, a walk in the woods to gather mushrooms.

The movie is gorgeous. The 70 millimeter film brings a sumptuous level of detail to everything and a loving care to the photography of the construction of the clothes. All of the scenes are carefully composed, the gowns influenced by the highest couture house. Mark Bridges, the costume designer, did his research well, and makes all of the cast look authentically dressed in the 1950s style. When Daniel Day Lewis pulls on his fuchsia colored socks, I was reminded of something, and was not surprised on learning that they came from the same Italian shop that supplies the pope.

The conflict that arises when Woodcock’s staid rigid world is interfered with because Alma wants him to love her and she wants to treat him with exclusive intimacy leads to plot twists that follow the fairy tale theme.
gown

The  movie begins with a good rhythm, where the scenes flow from one to the next based on the story behind it, the actors’ performances, the tension inherent in one cut shifting to the next, pace of editing is just right. It is only in the last 20 minutes that there is a strain in story and the masterly rhythm begins to stall.  Still, I found myself reflecting on the movie days afterward, and questioning certain plot points.  Phantom Thread is not just entertaining, it is a work of art.

 

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The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg. 2017.

With Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, Sarah Paulson.
The_Post_(film)

The movie opens with a combat scene during the Vietnam War; soldiers paint their faces to camouflage further their night time raid in the jungle.  They are attacked, instead of being the attackers.  Casualties are high.

While the soldiers have been assembling and cleaning their guns,  one man carries a typewriter: Daniel Ellsberg, a special reporter employed by the State Department writing on the progress of the war.

Ellsberg is summoned to advise the generals what he saw on the front.  It is a political moment: telling the truth sounds like mutiny.  So he hedges.  Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, hedges further, stretching political expediency into something more dangerous, into something that threatens thousands if not millions of lives.

The Post is not about all those human lives lost though.  It is about the power of the press, and one moment during the Nixon administration when the press was challenged and fought back in order to expose what had been happening during the decades of conflict in Vietnam.

There are several heroes in this movie.  First and foremost is Ellsberg, who had the courage to steal confidential files from the Pentagon and expose the government’s falsehoods.

But the most poignant and intimate portrait is of Katherine Graham, a well mannered lady of high degree, someone used to living well, in mansions, treating her friends to birthday parties, her colleagues to retirement speeches.  Graham as the only woman in power at the Washington Post is not often listened to, more commonly disparaged as a woman out of her depth in managing the paper.

But as she is called on to make an essential decision, even though her most trusted advisors suggest the prudent path, she sticks her neck out, decides the opposite, and speaks her mind. Her decision is historically significant.

Streep orchestrates her performance with great subtlety.  Tom Hanks as Benjamin Bradlee does a great impression of the Boston Brahman know it all.

What began as an enlightenment of one woman in the form of Katherine Graham, publisher, actually was informed by many other women who were relegated to lesser positions because of sexism.  Sarah Paulson in her role as Bradlee’s wife explains why Graham’s act was more courageous than Bradlee’s. It is a fine moment in the movie, when without some of the grandstanding and preachiness evoked at other points about the power of the press, a political victory is made.

paulson

Sarah Paulson as Tony Bradlee

 

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