Phantom Thread (2017)

Impression: Paul Thomas Anderson movies are so strange. They always seem to be about a power struggle between two strong personalities.  This one is no exception. It starts off as a relatively normal, pretty engaging period piece with a love story. Granted, something always feels a bit off. Then,  about half way through, the signature power struggle begins.

Woodcock is a designer and master tailor sought after by royalty and the elite for his exquisite dresses. He is consumed by his work. This is another theme which very much runs through Anderson’s work, complete obsession with one’s work. He also has a strange relationship to women. He gets obsessed with them, tires of them as soon as they demand any of his attention that he doesn’t bestow on them freely, and then he has his sister dispose of them. (Not literally 🙂 just inform them that he is dumping them).

He meets Alma and the attraction is instant. but she has strong opinions of her own.  Finally here is a match for him, she doesn’t just bend her will to match his desires, she has opinions and will of her own and is not afraid to use it. But their relationship gets more and more strange as the film progresses. She finds more and more disturbing ways of asserting her control over him.  Which he apparently knows and approves of.  Even though it could cost him his life.

Visually, Anderson pays as much attention to detail to the details of his film as Woodcock does to his dresses. The cinematography is impeccable. So much so, that it makes you wonder if some of the traits of his main character are based on himself. The acting is also top notch. But then, I have never seen Daniel Day-Lewis make a wrong move. Even if I didn’t like a movie he was in, his acting has always been spot on. I really think he is the best actor working today. Vicky Krieps looks a bit like a young Meryl Streep, and is understated for most of the film, but does well to hold her own against him in the more dramatic scenes.

In all, it’s a movie worth seeing. I always leave Anderson’s films with this strange sense of unease and like I am not taking away everything he meant for an audience to take away. Similarly here. I still think There Will Be Blood is my favorite of his movies.

Facts:  A very rigid and structured life of a famous dressmaker and womanizer is changed by a new muse and lover.

My Buddhist reading: I am really thrown for a loop here. I guess, some of the message in here is that people create worlds of their own making and exert them onto those around them, but even controlling every little detail of your life won’t necessarily make you happy.

Dinosaurs in a Mining Facility (2018)

Impression: This one might seem completely out of character for the typical movies I see, but honestly I don’t remember the last time I had as much fun and laughed as hard as I did during a movie. It’s zero budget, completely campy, but so much fun. The idea is absurd, but I don’t want to get into the plot too much, because discovering it is half the fun.  It’s a movie that is very self aware and not ashamed of being a low budget sci-fi comedy about dinosaurs in a mining facility or pretending to be something else.

It’s also endlessly quotable.  Is Ian going to “make something of himself?” There is a guy dressed in leather carrying around a chainsaw calling people “pointdexter.” There is also a movie within a movie (or a commercial and newscasts within a movie). Which I love from early Almodovar.  The ads for WAMO soda sure give Ponte Panties a run for their money! Actually, in a lot of ways this reminds me of early Almodovar. That’s high praise, and I don’t give it lightly. Sure, it’s a completely different genre and aesthetic.  But Almodovar also took a number of years to finish Pepi Lucy & Bom while working a full time job.  It was a fun activity done with friends, and there is the same kind of zeitgeist of irreverence, and just pure fun, which I guess you lose when you start doing something for a living, rather than for the fun of it.

The end credits are incredibly impressive as they seem to go on forever, and list every single source material from the internet that was used to create the special effects. And the list in very tiny print is impressive.  No wonder it took 5 years to complete. I’ve now sat through two Q&A’s with the director, and I never cease to be impressed with the amount of dedication it must take to get something like this done.

Facts:  Why does a soda company want with a mine? What are they even mining down there? The answer just might have something to do with dinosaurs.

My Buddhist reading:  Other dimensions and portals seem to mesh well with at least the Vajrayana type of Buddhism. 🙂

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Impression:  This is one of those movies I have been meaning to see for a while (10 years I guess, since it was released). Finally, it was playing for free in a cute little event space above a bar 5 minutes walk from my house on a weekend when I had nothing better to do. I love Wes Anderson’s aesthetic. The aesthetic along with the slightly weird way his characters act also means that all his movies have the same feel, and you could be dropped into a random film theater and within seconds recognize it as a Wes Anderson flick. This one is slightly different because it is stop motion, but it still manages to have that same feel.

As I learned from my 8 year old, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a Roald Dahl book, but since neither of us had read it, we weren’t sure how much liberty Anderson took with it. I assume quite a bit, but am not sure. George Clooney is the perfect voice for Mr. Fox, giving it just the right amount of slyness and oversized sense of self importance to make his character’s decisions believable.  Jason Schwartzman has been an Anderson regular for over 20 years now, and has the right amount of whininess for Ash, the loser son who wants to prove himself to his dad.

The story centers on Mr. Fox who always feels he is missing something in life and is always looking for a better house, one last job, and is never satisfied. His careless attitude ends up getting himself and all his neighbors into trouble when he angers the farmers he has been stealing from, and they will stop at nothing to get him, not caring who else gets hurt in the process. There is a side story of a cousin coming to stay with the family, who is better at everything than Ash. I feel like this must be a total Andersonism, and was probably not in the original book. The purpose of the cousin character seems to be just to annoy Ash and make him seem even more whiney then he is just in relation to his father.  The film ends with a fantastic escape plot with flying motorcycles and rabid dogs.  In general it’s a very fun, well paced film, and my 8 year old had a blast watching it.

Facts:  An anthropomorphic fox causes all kinds of havoc through his restlessness and dissatisfaction with life, bringing danger to his family and neighbors.

My Buddhist reading:  well there is the obvious literal thing here in that the annoying cousin, Kristofferson, meditates. But, there is a lot of neuroses in the two main characters of Mr. Fox and Ash that could probably be taken care of in some way with a bit of self reflection and meditation. There is this whole concept of self- cherishing which is strong in both of them, they are so wrapped up in their view of the world and how right it is to even notice that it hurts other people.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Impression: I saw ‘In the Loop’ some years ago, and I remember feeling kinda meh about it. It was marketed as a comedy, but it really wasn’t. So when I saw the ads for this movie when it came out, I was intrigued, but a bit hesitant. My SO really wanted to see it at the time, but we never did. Well we finally ran into it searching around on Netflix the other night.
It took me some talking and thinking about it to put my finger on what I think of Armando Iannucci‘s films. At the end, I don’t think I am a fan, but I can get why others would be. They are marketed as black comedies, but the two I have seen (In the Loop and this one) are basically films with an absurdly dark, perhaps funny premise, but not much in terms of laugh out loud specific content. It’s not exactly a comedy if you only chuckle twice during the entire movie.
I would group him with Tarantino, and say he has a similar premise, but places it within the realm of political film. And now having seen two, I don’t believe his movies are comedies.  He basically creates very similar characters, thuggish, brutal humans with foul mouths, but instead of placing them in plots where they play criminals and outlaws (like in Tarantino’s films), he places them in political roles. And it’s jarring and absurd to see, and I get he is making a point, and I can perhaps even appreciate the point he is making, I am just bothered by the label comedy which to me feels false. I love dark comedies, but I don’t find Iannucci’s films funny.
In this one you have a bunch of British and American actors playing members of the Central Committee around the time of Stalin’s death. They all yell at each, curse each other out, and say the most absurd things. When they are not ordering people shot or personally torturing prisoners, that is. But I guess the point he is trying to make is, what else do you do in those absurd situations, when hundreds of thousands of people are being killed and tortured for not being loyal enough? Is Iannucci’s dialogue really that crazy, considering the situations they find themselves in. Still, it’s quite brutal” they get “bad doctors” to start dissecting Stalin’s brain right in a shed, in front of everyone, Beira is shot and set on fire with a cigarette butt. But I guess I can see the impulse to show the banality of the brutality.
Also both of his films feel very dude-y. Nothing wrong with that, but just kind of a feeling I get. Still, not seeing much humor in it, it’s kind of a rough movie to watch.
Facts: Stalin’s death and immediate power struggle following it told in as ostensibly a black comedy.
My Buddhist reading: Possibly the least Buddhist I have ever seen, everyone is just a horrible person in a horrible world, no amount of meditating would save this lot. 🙂

Knives Out (2019)

Impression: This film is basically a slightly new twist on the old fashioned whodunit. What makes the movie work are purposefully over the top performances, and relying on the many times the audiences would have seen a movie of this genre, and possibly all the times they have played Clue :). Or Cluedo (as I discovered recently it was called originally in the UK).

Jamie Lee Curtis’s quivering upper lip (as far as I know last seen all the way back in A Fish Called Wanda) is back, and she is fantastic as the eldest sister, self made businesswoman, who just happened to get a lot of money from daddy in order to “make herself”.  Toni Collette, another one of my favorites, is perfect as a clueless hippy/golddigger daughter in law, who uses her own daughter as an excuse to keep mooching off the family.  And Michael Shannon hits all the right notes as a virtue signaler. He wants everyone to know he is so supportive of immigrants, and very politically correct, but when it comes down to it, he doesn’t really believe any of it, it’s just what you are supposed to say in polite society.

The not so subtle political commentary walks the line well for my taste, never becoming too preachy, and taking digs at all the characters equally. Harlan Thrombley was a wealthy mystery novelist, and all of his heirs are possible suspects in his death. It’s a perfect setting to reveal the basest instincts of human nature, as all of the family members turn on each other in order to get their hands on the family fortune.

Outside the family, there are the two detectives sent in to investigate the scene, Benoit Blanc (a private detective purposefully over-played by Daniel Craig for laughs), a housekeeper and a nurse. The film is very entertaining, and well paced, but it’s not until quite close to the end that it really picks up speed full steam.  The dialogue and the editing are quite snappy and fun.

One thing that I couldn’t help wondering the whole movie is why does Benoit Blanc have a french name and a southern accent, and how come no one asked him about it?

Facts: A wealthy mystery writer is found dead the day after his birthday party. Who killed him?

My Buddhist reading: I guess one of the kinder readings of the greedy Thormbley’s could be that it’s really difficult to do the right thing and be kind when faced with temptation. Even Meg (Harlan’s granddaughter) who seemed friendly and hip and real, shows her dark side when she sides with the family in order not to lose her own privileges.

The Two Popes (2019)

Impression: I am not religious at all. Other than my dabbling in Buddhism, I guess. But I found this movie fascinating. Its a very talky movie. It’s basically just a two hour conversation between two people (with a few flashbacks and interruptions thrown in). However, those two people are two popes and represent two differing world views: Francis, before he becomes pope and Benedict while he is pope. Francis wants to be close to the people he serves and is appalled by money wasted on unnecessary things, Benedict wants to uphold tradition. The filmmakers (and I) seem more partial to Francis’s view. Benedict is more of a device to challenge Francis and make him explain his thoughts. And make fun of Germans. 🙂 The clash of personalities and communication styles is striking. Even though both of them are of pretty advanced age, one of them is convinced of his righteousness and his beliefs, while the other seems tired and full of doubt.

The willingness to admire someone whose worldview you disagree with, based solely on the fact that they are unwavering in their belief is fascinating to me. I can’t imagine this happening in the opposite direction. But maybe it does? Or I suppose you must have some kind of crisis of faith in your own beliefs for that to be the case.

I liked the discussion of moral dilemmas that one is faced with when in power; ones where there is no right answer, and no matter what you chose, people get hurt and you regret your decision. I don’t remember another film which makes this so patently clear.

The cinematography is well done, and there are some beautiful scene, but the real winners here are the acting and the writing both of which are wonderful. Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are superb. The script weaves from heavy to lighthearted without missing a beat. And you even get to see the two popes attempt to tango for a bit.

It’s unclear to me how much of the movie is based on real conversations or facts, and how much of it is imagined. Did the conversation in the Sistine Chapel and the side room (and the subsequent interaction with the bewildered public actually take place? Or was it mostly a creative exercise on interesting things two theologians might have been talking about. If it happened, surely there muse be public record of it. I suppose I could look. Maybe after I write this.

Facts:  Pope Benedict’s extended conversation with Cardinal Bertoglio before he decides to retire.

My Buddhist reading: A little funny to have a Buddhist reading on a movie about popes. There was a line which I’ve heard Buddhist monks use too in the movie. Something to the effect of “Is anything ever a coincidence?” But the more Buddhist thing is the discussion of what Bertoglio did during the military rule of the junta in Argentina. In general, Buddhism holds that there are more or less skillful ways of dealing with a situation, but no absolute wrong or right. This is pretty much the way the situation is presented in the film: as a lose-lose option, with no clear correct path to act.  Of course, I don’t know enough to determine if that is indeed true.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969)

Impression: I went to see this because as I was writing my review of the The Laundromat I remembered I owned a book of interviews of filmmakers (and some actors and critics) about political film making. I just happened to re-read the Jane Fonda chapter and she was specifically asked about this movie.* I also happened to have volunteered to help promote a screening of this film at a local film theater. Too many coincidences not too go see it.  Plus it’s one of these classics I’ve always meant to see.

It’s a depressing one for sure. All the characters are desperate, the ones in the dance competition and ones putting it on. They put their bodies and brains through torture for weeks on end, dancing night and day with very short rest periods. Some of them drop out of exhaustion, some of them lose their mind and start hallucinating; One of them has a heart attack, one is pregnant while doing all this. It’s insanity. In a way it’s kind of torture to watch as well. There is not much plot: they dance, they rest, there is some internal fights between the contestants. And that’s the whole movie.

The main couple are Gloria (who is super sarcastic and annoyed by everything) and Richard (who really doesn’t have much to say). Some of the other couples are fleshed out a bit too: an older sailor who pretends to be in his 30s, an actress in fancy dresses desperate for a role in the movies, a young couple with a baby on the way, but most are anonymous. The plot is scant. I guess where it really succeeds is in its portrayal of desperation: some of the contestants showcase a talent and the audience throws pennies at them, the close ups during the derbies where the contestants try to push each other, exhausted bodies falling over. It’s all quite a spectacle.

Knowing that the premise is based on actual competitions from the 1920’s and 1930’s makes it even crazier. It’s one of these films that I am glad I saw but would not want to see again.

* Jane Fonda says of this movie: “definitely an analogy with American society: the tragedy of all those people killing each other for a prize that doesn’t exist at the behest of one man they could replace if they were conscious of what was being done to them.”

Facts:  Plot follows a few couples during weeks long exhaustion dance contest in 1930s  USA.

My Buddhist reading:  Ah, finally one ripe for a Buddhist reading. Other than  Buddhists not being fans of suicide (it’s not too nice to decide not to take full advantage of your rare human rebirth for your own and benefit of all), this one can be pretty easily fit into a Buddhist world view.  The dance competition is kind of like samsara: there is no escape, you can do some things to make a bit more money, or to make people like you, or to relieve your boredom, but at the end you are all just stuck there. After you take your short break, it’s back to the same all drudgery over again. And then, towards the end, we find out that it’s all even more pointless than it seemed at first.