"Everything is as it should be."

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Phantom Thread: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.7 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT IN THE THEATRE. For those who have more sophisticated taste in cinema, this is a true gem. For those with more conventional tastes, this might be enjoyable but a bit difficult. 

Phantom Thread, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is the story of Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned fashion designer in 1950's London, and his unlikely relationship with a young waitress. The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis, with supporting turns from Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps.

Phantom Thread is, like most of director PT Anderson's films, one of those movies that successfully operates upon multiple levels simultaneously. On the surface, the film is a dark relationship story, but just below that surface there is a seething underbelly that is glorious in its insightful complexity. While the surface story is entertaining and compelling, the real riches are to be found in the underbelly, where the treasure chest of psychological marrow resides.

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That marrow is the psychological story of a man attempting to integrate his anima. The anima is archetypal feminine energy and men spend their lifetimes trying to resolve their anima issues, just as women spend their lives attempting to resolve their animus issues, both in the pursuit of psychological wholeness. The true narrative at the heart of Phantom Thread is that of the artist (Woodcock - who is probably a stand in for the artist PT Anderson himself), first recognizing, then reconciling with his anima. All artists are in a lifelong dance with their anima, at times immersed in it and other times repulsed by it. While the twists and turns in the narrative of Phantom Thread can at first glance seem a bit much, when viewed through the prism of this psychological lens, they are entirely appropriate and quite remarkable. 

PT Anderson is the preeminent auteur of our age. He is one of the rarest of rare filmmakers who is equally masterful directing actors as he is directing the camera and the narrative. Darren Aronofsky is similar filmmaker to Anderson in this respect but is not quite up to his level. What immediately struck me about Phantom Thread and brought Aronofsky to mind is that the anima narrative at the core of Phantom Thread is almost identical to the core of Aronofsky's last film, the much maligned and debated Mother! (not to mention a very similar narrative structure). I certainly do not think either director intentionally stole the idea or that they were even conscious of the similarities, but it is very striking to me when two artists of PT Anderson's and Darren Aronofsky's caliber are moved by the same muse. Whenever that happens my Isaiah/McCaffrey Wave Theory alarms go off and I immediately sit up and take notice. Now…to be clear, Phantom Thread is a vastly superior film to Mother!, of that there is no doubt, but the similarities of their DNA are worth noting.

Daniel Day Lewis gives what may very well be his greatest performance in Phantom Thread, and considering his stellar career, that is saying a lot. Lewis gives his Reynolds Woodcock a vivid inner life filled with specific and detailed intentions that are palpable on screen, such as when he sets his sights on the young waitress Alma. While Woodcock is a meticulous study in contained fury, it is when he reveals his magnetic and seductive charm that the true force of his power is seen. 

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Lewis is always an intoxicating actor to watch, a master craftsman with a commanding and innate dynamism that is so compelling as to be nearly hypnotic, and so it is in Phantom Thread. Lewis has said that this is his last performance, and that would certainly be a terrific loss for the acting world, but going out with such a tour de force as he gives in Phantom Thread feels like a wonderful Daniel Day-Lewis-ian thing to do for the always enigmatic master. 

Vicky Krieps bursts onto the acting scene as Alma Elson, the waitress who catches Reynold Woodcock's eye. Krieps is an alluring and luminous screen presence. She has an understated power to her that is impressive to behold. There is never a moment where she seems overwhelmed opposite the Greatest Actor in the World®, Daniel Day-Lewis. 

Krieps has an earthy, beguiling sexuality about her that is captivating and enchanting. Watching her Alma navigate the treacherous waters of her relationship with Woodcock by using different tactics and strategies was a joy to behold simply due to Kriep's unabashed talent. 

Lesley Manville plays Reynolds sister Cyrill to perfection. Cyrill is the brains and structure behind Reynolds talent, without her the entire fashion dynasty they have built would crumble. Manville's command of stillness and steely glare make her Cyrill a sort of Lady MacBeth of the House of Woodcock, as she is unsexed and the true power behind the throne. 

Even though he is a highly skilled fashion designer, Reynolds is still a man in every sense of his being. Although he may not appear to be, he is a man ruled by his appetites and his very specific and unique tastes, whether it be in food or women. 

Cyrill is the one who has learned to remain still so that Reynolds hungry animal nature does not devour her, but the intrigue of Phantom Thread is watching Alma try and figure out how to tame Reynolds beast and satiate his appetites without sacrificing herself in the process. 

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Besides being filled with superior acting, Phantom Thread is a gorgeous film to look at as well. Anderson's usual cinematographer, the always fantastic Robert Elswitt, was unavailable to shoot Phantom Thread, and rumors are that Anderson shot it himself, although he claims it was a collaborative effort on the part of multiple people. Whoever shot it though deserves accolades as the framing, in particular, but also the color palette and the sheer beauty of the lighting, some of it with just candles, is remarkable. 

The fashion on display is also a wonder to behold. I am not someone who usually notices that sort of thing but I was overwhelmed with the beauty and intricacy of the wardrobe in the movie. I assume Phantom Thread, which is nominated for six Oscars, will at the very least get a win for Costume Designer Mark Bridges, who richly deserves the award.

In conclusion, I loved Phantom Thread and think it is one of the very best films of the year. Like PT Anderson's other films There Will Be Blood and The Master, it may be a bit impenetrable for  those whose tastes are not inclined to the art house. For cinephiles or those with more ambitious movie going tastes though, Phantom Thread is a delectable cinematic feast. I highly recommend you spend your hard earned dollars and sparse free time to go see it in the theatre. 

©2017

ADDENDUM:

****WARNING- THIS ADDENDUM CONTAINS SPOILERS!! THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!****

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- I just wanted to write a brief analysis of the film to add to my review for those who have seen the movie already. The thing to watch for in Phantom Thread is Reynolds obvious controlling and power hungry nature. Notice how he has very specific tastes in food and how he controls his environment. 

Reynolds, who, like most artists, is estranged from his anima but like a flame is constantly drawn to it and then repulsed by it, which is why he goes through so many different muses…just like the writer character in Mother!

The fascinating thing to me is that Alma uses mushrooms to sicken Reynolds. Mushroom are grown in the shadow…symbolic of the psychological shadow. She surreptitiously gets Reynolds to digest his shadow material and it makes him ill. It is when he is ill, weakened, that his "male armor" comes down and he is helpless and is able to appreciate Alma once again. 

When caring for the sick Reynolds, Alma takes on the role of his late mother…mother being the ultimate anima figure (hence Aronsofky's film titled Mother!). Reynolds even has a fever dream where he sees Alma and his dead mother in the room with him and they sort of blend into one another. This is the beginning of Reynolds integrating his anima, which is hard and painful work, but ultimately not only necessary but vital. 

As time goes on and their relationship twists and turns, Alma returns to the mushrooms, this time even more of them. Reynolds understand why this is, and that he must turn himself over to the shadow material (mushrooms), even risking his life, in order to have the anima experience he so desperately needs to "survive" as an artist and to continue on his journey to wholeness. 

In some ways, Alma is a witch, using nature to brew up a concoction in order to weaken Reynolds and remove his masculine armor in order to make him more susceptible to the spell of the animus. 

I know that this interpretation might be a bit much for some people, but it makes for a fascinating and in my opinion, ultimately satisfying, way to watch the film. 

©2017

Mother! : A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating : 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SKIP IT. Even the most edgy of art house inhabitants will find this film tough to swallow.

Most people don't know this about me, but due to a serious health condition (just like Christian Slater in Untamed Heart, I have a baboon's heart), I am one of those weird people who does not drink caffeine at all, no coffee, no tea, no Coca-Cola, and I almost never drink non-caffienated soda either. This is a shocking revelation, but I promise you it is true. Of the rare times I do indulge in a non-caffienated soda, it is always in the form of root beer and always when I go to the movies. One of the very few pleasures I have in my miserable life is to sit in the dark, watching a movie, drinking a gloriously oversized root beer and eating popcorn. Hell, sometimes I go to the movies just for the a taste of that bubbly brown nectar of the gods that we mortals know as the beer of root.

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When I trekked to the theatre to see Mother!, my usual pre-root beer sense of anticipation was heightened because the film is directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Darren Aronofsky. An Aronofsky film and an ice cold root beer…what could possibly go wrong? Well, two things happened that would portend that Mother! would not be the stellar movie going experience for which I was hoping. The first was that when I bought my ticket I saw that the price had gone up nearly four dollars from what I usually pay. In Los Angeles, movie tickets aren't cheap to begin with, and then to realize that even though I went to the first showing of the day, because that day was not a Monday or Tuesday, I would no longer get the matinee price. So, after being forced to take out a second mortgage in order to cover the costs, I reluctantly shelled out my $16.50 for my movie ticket and then bought my overpriced root beer and popcorn. At this point I was now deeply in debt and the movie hadn't even started yet. I then entered the darkened theatre and began my movie going ritual of shutting off my phone and my mind, and settling in for a film I was excited to see. 

Then, just as the lights dimmed and the opening credits rolled, I took the inaugural sip of my root beer and….God help me…it was FLAT. Now there may be nothing worse in the entire universe than flat root beer…not famine, not pestilence, not war. Nothing!

Now, my conundrum was this, do I get up and make the mile and half death march to the concession stand to make my displeasure known, which will no doubt be followed by a lackadaisical response to my complaint by the ill tempered staff, which will then trigger a disinterested plea on a walkie-talkie to the theatre bureaucracy to change out the floppy bag from which my gallon of flat root beer was birthed. I surmised that breaking through the malaise of employee indifference to solve my flat root beer problem could take at least 15 minutes, and by that time, the entire opening of the movie would be long gone, and God knows they sure as hell weren't going to rewind the reel and let me start my cinema experience over front the beginning. 

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My other option was to, Christ-like, be a root beer martyr and just sit there and suffer the brutal indignity of taking tiny sips of the flaccid, syrupy concoction I was served. Being the good Irish-Catholic boy that I am, I made the difficult decision to endure my tonic torture and root beer brutality, and I stayed to watch the film with my gargantuan, de-bubbled companion. I should have known, all the signs were there, but my flat vat of root beer was a very bad omen indeed for Mother!, which turned out to be just as unpleasant to ingest as my 40 oz cup of flat, teeth dissolving and gut-rotting root beer. 

The basics of Mother! are this, it is written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, and the story is a sort of supernatural, psychological thriller-dramedy about a couple living in an isolated farmhouse. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence with Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michele Pfeiffer in supporting roles.

I am a great admirer of director Darren Aronofsky, I believe him to be a true visionary and auteur, and one of the great filmmakers of his generation, second only to Paul Thomas Anderson. Aronofsky's breakthrough film, Requiem for a Dream, is a masterpiece, and his movies The Wrestler and Black Swan are truly outstanding pieces of work . Even The Fountain, one of his least critically successful films, is a fascinating and mesmerizing movie that I genuinely adore.

Aronofsky's last film though, was the utterly abysmal Noah, which was so atrocious as to be staggering. As I said though, I am ever the optimist, so I had very high hopes that with Mother!, Aronofsky would shake off the big budget blues that plagued Noah and return to his signature intimate character study approach to filmmaking that he does so well. Sadly, with Mother!, it seems Aronofsky is still grappling with the same thematic and cinematic demons which devoured him on Noah.

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Mother! is a difficult film to categorize, some call it a psychological thriller, others a supernatural comedy and some still a religious horror film. I think it is mostly none of the above. If I am putting Mother! in its best light, I would say it is an ambitious, experimental, art house, horror-esque film. It is at times, very remotely reminiscent of Rosemary's Baby and maybe even The Shining, but then again it is absolutely nothing like those film at all. There really is no straight up comparison between Mother! and any other film I can think of, which I suppose can be taken as a compliment towards the movie. 

The trouble with Mother!, is that the first two thirds of the film are so suffocatingly monotonous, repetitious and dull that they swallow up any redeeming qualities the film may conjure in its final act. The final third of the film definitely intrigued me the most as it is Aronofsky at his most experimental and interesting. That said, even though the last act is unique, incredibly ambitious and its apocalyptic vision is certainly relevant in regards to what is resonating in our cultural consciousness at the moment, that doesn't mean it is good. While I admire Aronofsky for his bold approach in that final act, I also recognize that he failed at what he was trying to accomplish. I believe that third act is a noble failure, but it is a failure nonetheless. Unfortunately, the first two thirds of the film are so stultifying as to be cinematically fatal. I understand that the first two acts are supposed to be a sort of slow burn that builds to the chaotic, frenetic and Boschian final act, but because the first two acts are so tedious the film never generates enough interest or artistic momentum to make the final act worthwhile or artistically satisfying. 

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The film stars Jennifer Lawrence, who is as captivating and compelling an actress as we have working today, but even with her charisma and luminous beauty, she is unable to save the banal script from itself. As I watched Mother! I marveled at how it is impossible to imagine any other current actress being able to undertake the mammoth role and responsibility Jennifer Lawrence does in this movie. She is on screen the entire film and is in close up relentlessly, and while the camera dances dizzily around her head she never fails to be magnetic. While Mother! is not a good film, and reflects poorly on its director, it is still a monument to the colossal talent and skill of its leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence.

Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michele Pfeiffer all struggle with underwritten and rather incongruous roles that are little more than an annoyance to behold. These characters are so irrational, illogical and unbelievable that it is impossible for the viewer to be anything but repulsed by their presence and annoyed they must be endured. All three characters feel like they have wandered in from a very poorly written off-off-off Broadway play.

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In terms of theme, Mother! is a film that uses a plethora of religious allegories and metaphors to tell a greater story than just that of a young couple living in a remodeled farmhouse. While the film is set entirely in a rather claustrophobic old house, to call the movie biblical in its ambition, if not its scale, would be entirely accurate. Aronofsky uses this house to play out the struggle of God from Genesis in the Old Testament to Christ's birth and crucifixion in the New Testament and even all the way up to our modern times and beyond. The most intriguing aspect of the film is the thematic exploration of the divine Feminine and its relationship to the divine Masculine. The Anima - Animus relationship is one well worthy of cinematic investigating, and watching the Patriarchal God usurp the Goddess is fascinating in theory, but not in execution. I was deeply enthralled by all of the philosophy, theology and themes on display in the film, but viscerally repelled by the lackluster consummation of those topics. 

Despite the intriguing third act and Jennifer Lawrence's noteworthy performance, I simply cannot, in good conscience, recommend Mother! to anyone. Watching the film felt more like an exercise in cinematic endurance or surviving creative torture than entertainment or artistic experience. I would maybe…just maybe...tell my more adventurous cinephile friends, and those who are ardent fans of Darren Aronofsky, to roll the dice and go see the film just to see if they agree with my assessment of it. But for regular folks, and even those who enjoy the art house, I say skip Mother! in the theatre and everywhere else. 

In conclusion, Mother! is similar to root beer, that delightful beverage that is infused with bubbles and a delicious pile of sugar as large as Scarface's desktop cocaine stash. Like root beer, Mother! has all the right ingredients, a uniquely gifted, visionary director in Darren Aronofsky, and a talented and alluring lead actress in Jennifer Lawrence, but just like my lifeless and insipid root beer at the theatre, Mother! never properly mixes its many desirable ingredients or infuses them with carbonated energy, and thus leaves viewers with a bitter and sour taste in their mouth once they've taken an unfortunate taste. Yuck.

©2017