Saturday, June 16, 2018

May 2018


 


FIRST REFORMED  (2018)
     Most of the important American films in the past 30 years that have addressed faith and the place of God in modern society have been the work of Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader.
     While Scorsese's 2016 examination of the sacrifices demanded by faith, "Silence" was a complex epic set in 17th Century Japan, Schrader new movie is a humble tale of a rather cold, depressed pastor in a  tiny church in upstate New York. Both filmmakers, over long careers, have often addressed the strains of living a moral life in contemporary America.
    Schrader, whose recent pictures have barely been released (and star Nicolas Cage, need I say more....) helped write "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" for Scorsese and directed "American Gigolo" (1980), "Cat People" (1982), "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters" (1985), "Patty Hearst" (1988) and "Affliction" (1997). Without making Hollywood's A-list, Schrader has been one of the most interesting, cerebral writer-directors of his generation.
      In "First Reformed," Ethan Hawke plays Rev. Toller, a deeply reflective, alcoholic minister whose counseling of a troubled young couple (Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger) leads him to an awakening to the ongoing ecological crisis and the polluting being done by a company whose founder is a major backer of his church and its larger sister church, Abundant Life.
    While Toller becomes emotionally involved with the appropriately named Mary (Seyfried), who's also pregnant, and the environmental issues, Rev. Jeffers of Abundant Life (Cedric--the Entertainer--Kyles in a rare dramatic role) is pushing him to prepare for the celebration of the old church's 250th anniversary.
     The combination of the conflict between the old church's austerity and the upbeat, can-do attitude of Jeffers is all it takes to send Toller into an emotional and intellectual abyss. Not only is Schrader taking shots at the feel-good religion of the 21st Century, but at the lack of social responsibly taken by contemporary religious leaders.
    Hawke's Toller is essentially Travis Bickel with a collar, complete with a "Taxi Driver"-like ending that hovers between reality and dream.
   This rigorous, stoic performance by Hawke, his best work on film, converts the minimalistic picture into a kind of battle of conscience in the desert as Toller takes on the suffering of Christ.
   One could criticize Schrader for mining old ground, but this is a timeless conflict that, especially in this dumb-downed era of moviemaking, is always welcomed.
  

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY  (2018)
     I'm starting to feel as if I review a "Star Wars" film in every edition of Thoughts on Film. Of course, that might be because this is only my sixth post in the past year, but, to the point, maybe Disney needs to slow down production on these side features.
    Not that "Solo" isn't worth seeing for fans, but the movie is about as basic as the series gets. The entire plot could have been a 10-minute flashback in "The Force Awakens" the 2015 entry in which the intrepid and beloved Han Solo dies.
    Played with the required playfulness and arrogance by Alden Enrenreich (who doesn't look much like Harrison Ford but captures some of his mannerisms), young Han does exactly what you'd think in every situation the film presents. But what surrounds him isn't much; the movie lacks any sense of urgency and, inexcusable for a "Star Wars" adventure, is filled with flat, forgettable characters.
     Even the usually reliable Woody Harrison, as a conniving mercenary, doesn't bring much value to the film. Even worse are Emilia Clarke (of "Game of Thrones") as Solo's love interest who ends up attached to the bad guy, Donald Glover (of TV's "Atlanta") as the young version of con man Lando and veteran Paul Bettany as the criminal they are all working for.  
     Director Ron Howard, brought in midway through production, doesn't make his presence felt either; not that he's ever been known as a stylist, but the film is dying for a some energy and a sliver of believability. At least, he could have inspired decent performances out of the cast.
    Enrenreich, not yet 30, arrives at the role with an impressive resume, having already appeared in films by Francis Coppola, Warren Beatty and Woody Allen, but he still isn't ready to carry a major film like "Solo."
    I'm relatively confident that I'll finish another Thoughts before the next "Star Wars" picture hits screens, but I'm just as sure that a new piece to George Lucas' epic puzzle will arrive way too soon.  Sure, I'd like to see the middle years of Obi-wan Kenobi, but I'm happy to wait until 2020.


TULLY (2018)
      I'm not exactly part of the target audience for a film about postpartum depression, the trials of breast feeding and the struggles of parenthood. Yet this Jason Reitman-directed movie also offers insight into the changing landscape of adulthood and the longing for the optimism of youth, which registered loud and clear for me.
     In her ninth month when the film opens, Marlo (Charlize Theron) is clearly exhausted by her pregnancy (it's her third) and not feeling much support from an inattentive husband Drew (Ron Livingston). Adding to her stress,  the couple's first-grader, obviously on the spectrum, isn't fitting in at school and requires special care (and, though not mentioned, the right meds--they desperately need a better health plan).
    Her brother offers a solution to some of her ailments: a night nanny. She rejects the idea as bourgeois, but after a few weeks of nonstop, exhausting care has a change of heart. Suddenly, the young, wise, ridiculously efficient free spirit Tully (Mackenzie Davis who played the replicant prostitute in "Blade Runner 2049") shows up just before bedtime every night, reviving Marlo's outlook on life. The relationship between Marlo and Tully that forms the center of the film turns the story into much more than the trials of a newborn's mother.   
      Though not as edgy as "Young Adult," the first collaboration between director Reitman, writer Diablo Cody and Theron, "Tully" continues the trio's exploration of difficult transition into a life of responsibility in the 21st Century. The film also connects to Cody's Oscar-winning debut screenplay about teen pregnancy, "Juno," also directed by Reitman.
    The versatile Theron brings the same authenticity to her roles whether she's playing a resourceful spy in "Atomic Blonde," an Amazon warrior in "Mad Max: Fury Road" or someone desperate for stability in "Young Adult" and "Tully." She deserved Oscar nominations for "Mad Max" and "Young Adult;" hopefully her work in "Tully" won't also be overlooked.


DOWNSIZING (2017)
    Even the most insightful and  accomplished filmmaker occasionally miscalculates. Alexander Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor have produce a string of films that inevitably have made my year-end Top 10: "Election" (1999), "About Schmidt" (2002), "Sideways" (2004), "The Descendants" (2011) and "Nebraska" (2013).
   But their latest, a metaphoric tale about the search for a meaningful life, wrapped in a clever idea of saving the planet by shrinking humans down to five inches, never finds its footing.
     Matt Damon's Paul and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), unsatisfied with their financial status in the full-sized world, decide to get shrunk and move into a slick new world where their meager savings will allow them to live like millionaires. Except that Audrey backs off at the last minute, leaving mini Paul to navigate his new existence on his own. 
    When Paul meets a famous humanitarian, slumming as a housekeeper, his life quickly changes. She takes over his life, or he lets her, and the Swiftian satire is dispensed with. Ngoc Lan Tran (an amusing Hong Chau), whose thick Vietnamese accent becomes a bit too-much of a running gag, dominates the second half of the film as she leads Paul into uncharted waters, a new way to look at life.
      Damon and the script are never able to nail down what Paul is all about other than an easily led sad sack who doesn't have a leading role in his own life. I was more interested in his neighbor Dusan (the kinetic Christoph Waltz), who seems to have uncovered the key to success in the little-people world and is having the time of his life.


A QUIET PLACE (2018)
    There's something very appealing about movie characters forced by threat of quick, gruesome death to remain silent. Noisy, pointlessly talkative character are a plague on contemporary cinema--no one (screenwriters and directors) knows when to let acting tell the story.
      For this well-received horror film, the hushed tones keep the Abbott family, headed by Lee (John Krasinski, who also directed) and Evelyn (the always stressed Emily Blunt) from being attacked by hideous alien creatures that have seemingly destroyed much of humanity.
    The screenplay offers little clue as to where these spider-like creatures came from, how many people have survived or what's being done to combat them. The nuclear family is the entire cast.
    The film's spareness is its primary strength--I was glad not to be subjected to  all the usual scientific mumbo jumbo that always results in nothing in these types of pictures. But what's left--remember, very little is said--doesn't add up to much of a story. Most interestingly is the pre-teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), whose anger at the overall situation and an earlier family tragedy provide an edge to this otherwise solemn situation.
     Yet my sympathy for the family went out the window when Evelyn becomes pregnant. At first I thought I was mistaken--what could be more idiotic than bringing another human into this horrific world. More practically, a newborn cannot control crying, almost guaranteeing that the very hungry aliens would show up.
    If Krasinski was trying to show how hopeful these people remained the face of incredible darkness, it didn't work; my reaction was how stupid they were, putting their other children and themselves at pointless risk.
     I don't see many horror films, so I'll take other critics' word that this is a big step above the usual fodder, but the genre still has a long way to go to be more than amusing date-night entertainment.


READY PLAYER ONE (2018)
      For a film that is more computer game than cinema, this sentimental story based on a best-selling teen novel is entertaining from start to finish.
   Set in a dystopia future just 30 years from now, in which hopeless humans play out their lives in a virtual reality game called OASIS (not much of a sci-fi stretch), the film is filled with reference to pop culture of the 1980s--even Orwell never imaged a future so horrible).
     The deceased creator of the VR world, Anorak (an unrecognizable Mark Rylance) has left behind an elaborate contest in which the winner will  become controller of the world.
    Wade (Tye Sheridan), known as Parzival in the game, lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio--not far from director Steven Spielberg's hometown of Cincinnati--who through obsessive study of Anorak's life, earns the first of three keys to the game. At that point, he's joined by an amusingly diverse posse who all take on superhero guises in OASIS.
   What kept the movie interesting for this non-gamer was the nonstop reference to other movies, including 1980s classic "Back to the Future" (there's a Zemeckis rubric's cube!), "Say Anything" and "The Shining" (in a long sequence at the Overlook Hotel).
    Like all teen movies, this is a story of  diversity, teamwork and lessons to be learned, which grows dull quickly.
    While there are way too many CGI battles for my taste, Spielberg keeps bringing the viewer back to the real life people behind the avatars and their battle with the evil corporate giant (if the VR world is anything, it's filled with clichés).
    The obvious question is: Why is a filmmaker of Spielberg's status making this kind of Saturday morning throwaway, like he did in "BFG" (2016)? Yet it's hard to complain too much when he continues to also make films like "Lincoln," "Bridge of Spies" and "The Post," all in the last six years.


THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN (2017)
      Though a constant presence in American film for 30 years, Bill Pullman has rarely been the star. Like the great character actors of the studio era, he's always convincing, usually more memorable than the films.
     His finest performance was as the quirky private eye Daryl Zero in "Zero Effect," a little seen 1998 gem that in some alternative universe would have turned into a serious of films.
      Pullman became a well-known face starting in the late 1980s and early 90s as Lone Starr in Mel Brooks' "Star Wars" parody "Spaceballs," Meg Ryan's jilted fiance in "Sleepless in Seattle," gunman Ed Masterson in "Wyatt Earp,"  Sandra Bullock's low-key love interested in "While You Were Sleeping" and as the president in the mega hit "Independence Day."
    Suddenly, he found himself headlining projects directed by cult filmmakers David Lynch ("Lost Highway") and Wim Wenders ("The End of Violence") and then scored his best role, as quirky private eye Daryl Zero in "Zero Effect" (1998) for director Jake Kasdan. In some alternative universe, "Zero" would have been turned into a series of films. 
       Since the turn of the century, he's mostly been toiling in B-movie territory, though in 2017, in addition to "Lefty Brown," he played tennis legend and proud male chauvinist Jack Kramer in "The Battle of the Sexes."
     Lefty Brown is the unassuming, trusted sidekick of Edward Johnson (the enduring Peter Fonda), a successful Montana rancher and just elected U.S. senator who is shot down while the pair are out checking on livestock.
     While Lefty and a young hotshot (Diego Josef) go after the killers, various friends and local politicians convince the widow (Kathy Baker) that the seemingly loyal Brown turned on Johnson. Even in the middle of nowhere in the 1890s, politics were ugly.
    Written and directed by Jared Moshe, whose previous feature was also a Western, "Dead Man's Burden" (2012), but has mostly served as producer on documentaries, the film plays more like an extended episode of "Gunsmoke" rather than a feature. But Pullman more than makes up for that; he shines for all the sidekicks who were underappreciated in Western pictures.


THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926)
and THE LOVES OF JEANNE NYE (1927)
    Unlike most art forms--writing, painting, dancing, the stage--technology plays a large part in our appreciation of movies. Those other expressive endeavors look pretty much the same as they did a century ago (or longer), but try showing a black and white film to a classroom of teenagers. Even a movie from the '90s is greeted with groans about its creaky visuals and acting.
    Even my generation, born just 25 years after the arrival of sound, thinks of  silent movies as quaint relics of a long-ago world not to be taken seriously. I'd wager that most people under the age of 60 have seen nothing from the silent era beyond clips from Chapin or Keaton comedies--they are missing some of the finest works of the cinema.
    The Western epic "Barbara Worth" tells the story of the Colorado River and how its invaluable water was used for the agricultural and urban growth of California. We first meet Barbara as an infant standing beside the body of her dead mother in the middle of an endless desert. The family's attempt to migrate west ends tragically, but the girl is taken in by rancher Jefferson Worth (Charles Lane) and grows to be a feisty, independent cowgirl, played by Vilma Blanky, one of Hollywood biggest stars in the 1920s. (The Hungarian actress' career ended with sound--she's couldn't speak English.)
    When Jefferson Worth hires an engineer (the dashing Ronald Colman) to create an irrigation system for the desert town, the young man falls instantly in love with Barbara, who's already being courted by her father's top ranch hand (a pre-stardom Gary Cooper).
     Director Henry King creates an impressive visual stage for this love triangle, capturing the vastness of the west before the massive immigration began. The story, from Frances Marion's script of Harold Bell Wright's novel, was reused in Westerns for the rest of the century and, predictably, culminates in the two rivals putting aside their differences to save the town from ill-advised decisions.
     The climatic dam break, which comes close to destroying the entire community, is as impressive a special effect as any created in Hollywood over the next 20 years.  George Barnes ("Rebecca") and Gregg Toland ("Citizen Kane") are the credited cinematographers.
      King spent 30 years as 20th-Century Fox's go-to director making mostly pedestrian, star vehicles, yet occasionally he turned out gems like "Jesse James" (1939),  "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949), "The Gunfighter" (1950)--both starring Gregory Peck--"Carousel" (1956) and "The Sun Also Rises" (1957).
     More complex and adult is G.W. Pabst's "The Love of Jeanne Ney," a intense story of an innocent young woman caught up in the underground activity of factions of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. When the father of Jeanne (Edith Jehanne) is murdered, she flees to Paris under the protection of her uncle who runs a private eye agency.
   The performance of the film is given by 21-year-old Brigitte Helm, best known as the star of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" released that same year. She plays Jeanne's blind cousin who is courted by the sleazy Khalibiev, who really has his eyes on Jeanne.  
    Stylish constructed by Pabst, the film is a model of silent artistry in which plot and character are conveyed through visuals and a limited amount of title cards. Two years later, Pabst collaborated with sex symbol Louise Brooks to create two of the most memorable silents, "Pandora's Box" and "Diary of a Lost Girl." He also brought Bertolt Brecht's landmark musical-drama "The Three Penny Opera" (1931) to the screen.
    Just as the art of film was reaching its apex in the late 1920s, elevated by directors telling stories with the camera, Warner Bros. released "The Jazz Singer," featuring stage legend Al Jolson singing "Mammy" and a few other songs. The industry--and the art form--was never the same again.


Saturday, March 3, 2018

February 2018


 

2017 OSCAR NOMINATIONS

      I’ve finally come to the realization that the Oscar nominations are no longer something I need to fret about. It’s taken years of intense disappointment, but it has become clear that any group that believes “Get Out,” “Call Me by Your Name” and “Lady Bird”—to name the most egregious mistakes—are best picture candidates is no longer “my” Academy Awards.
       And I can't even look for support among the mainstream critics; most reaction to the nominations focused on the absence of “Wonder Woman,” an even less qualified film, from the best picture selections. That said, I still reserve the right to complain about them.
      What struck me most was the excitement stirred over director Greta Gerwig's nomination for “Lady Bird,” while no one noticed the biggest snub of the season was the award shutout for female director Kathryn Bigelow, whose “Detroit” was the best film of 2017. This powerful film, as superbly directed as her 2009 best picture winner "The Hurt Locker," speaks to both the intense racial conflicts of the 1960s and the current tentative state of affairs.
        Also missing in action among directors are Joe Wright for “Darkest Hour” and Craig Gillespie for “I, Tonya.” At least “Darkest Hour” earned a best picture nod; “I, Tonya,” easily the most inventive and daring movie of the year, was only recognized for the performances of Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.
      Among the performers who were left off the nomination lists were Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, both superb in the little seen “Hostiles,” a first-rate Western (see below) that got lost among the big-budget holiday releases; James Franco pitch-perfect work as the crazy Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist” (turns out an actor's off-screen character is part of the Oscar qualifications); and Jeremy Renner from another underappreciated film “Wind River.” 
    The biggest shock in the supporting categories was the absence of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, as a distressed couple dealing with their daughter's mysterious illness in "The Big Sick." Also deserving nominations were Patrick Stewart's lion-in-winter turn in "Logan" and Algee Smith's determined R&B singer whose big chance is lost in the wake of street protests in "Detroit." 
      But I am so pleased to finally see Sam Rockwell, an actor I've been championing since the 1990s, earn some recognition. I'll enjoy Sunday's show if Rockwell, Gary Oldman and 14-time cinematography nominee Roger Deakins all go home with their first Oscar trophy.
      See my previous post for my Top 20 and selections for directing, acting, writing and cinematography.

      



I, TONYA (2017)
    Who doesn't dismiss upcoming movies with "that's not something I'm interested in" or "that's not my kind of movie"? It's our way of editing down the seeming endless string of new releases into something manageable. Even for someone who endeavors to see any new film of note, it's simply impossible to keep up.
     But this entertaining, surprisingly insightful and superbly made movie shows that any subject can make for compelling cinema. I can't imagine a subject--competitive ice skating (even at its most controversial moment)--that I have less interest in.
     Even when it was big news in 1994, I remember thinking: who cares, it's ice skating.
    This may be the best written movie of the year as Steven Rogers (previously specializing in feel-good films like "Stepmom" and "P.S. I Love You") has constructed a screenplay that relies on a handful of unreliable narrators who together offer the viewer a semblance of the truth. Meanwhile, director Craig Gillespie expertly balances the film's tone between the hilarious idiocy and on-going tragedy of the early life of Tonya Harding.
    One minute you are laughing at the white trash ignorance of Harding (an unforgettable Margot Robbie), and, especially, her bitter, ruthless mother LaVona (played to perfection by Allison Janney) and the next you are jolted into revulsion at the cruelty and desperation of these characters' fates.
    For those who didn't live though this nutty adventure, one of the Olympic sports most notorious soap opera, Hardy was a young girl with amazing ice skating skills, yet, because she came from poverty and was a bit rough around the edges (I'm being more polite than the film) she rarely received her due by competition judges.
    At one point, she verbally assaults a judge in the parking lot after a competition to get him to admit that she's the better skater, just not the "kind of girl" the sports wants representing it.
     Eventually, she perfects a jump called the triple axel, which forces the judges to started awarding Harding's performances.
        Though the plot keeps advancing toward what everyone keeps referring to as "the incident"--when Harding's boyfriend and others (and maybe Harding herself) conspire to injure rival Nancy Kerrigan to ease Harding chances in the Nationals and Olympic trials.
     Who was responsible, directly or indirectly, was at the heart of the news stories with the tough-girl Tonya vs. ice princess Nancy dominating the headlines.
    In "I, Tonya," as the title suggests, we're getting Ms. Harding's version, portrayed in a contemporary, direct-to-the-camera interview in her kitchen, intercut with the drama of the 1990s story.
    Gillespie, whose comic love story, "Lars and the Real Girl," was one of 2007's best films, delivers a fast-paced mixture of docu-drama, social commentary and screwball comedy; a feat more deserving of a directing Oscar nomination than any of the actual nominees. And his work with the actors is just as impressive.
     Robbie, who played the sexy second wife in "The Wolf of Wall Street," gives the breakthrough performance of the year, bringing out the humanity in Tonya while not shying away from her white-trash roots. As she narrative her  story, Harding never comes off as a victim, even as her horrible ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) beats her bloody and falsely accuses her of crimes and her unrelenting mother treats her like a prisoner of war.
     Janney gives the performance of the year as this misguided single mother who drives her daughter to skating championships but deprives her of the simplest compliment and any hint of love. She commands every scene she's in.
     Janney has done impressive work in the past, including in "Juno" (2007), "The Help" (2011) and "The Way Way Back" (2013), but she achieves a different level of craft in "I, Tonya." The sight of her sitting on her florid-patterned couch,
attached to oxygen tank apparatus while a parquet sits perched on her shoulder as she defends her actions during an "interview" years after the events is nearly surreal.
    Also memorable is Paul Walter Hauser as the hilariously delusional Shawn, Gillooly's buddy who imagines himself bodyguard and major operator while living at home with his parents.
    Maybe I'm still under the spell of Fitzgerald--I just finished reading "The Great Gatsby" with my students--but "I, Tonya" seems to me to be one of the better depictions of the hopelessness of the American dream. Her past, the system that is gamed for a select few, those who are never fully convinced of any transformation--it all combines, as it did for Gatsby, to block her dreams and keep her out of that elusive, exclusive club of winners.
    Harding seems like an unlikely character for such a grand, literary theme, but, as told by Gillespie and his fine cast, this humble, tawdry tale makes for epic tragedy.


BLACK PANTHER (2018)
     It wasn't hard to predict the positive reviews this first big-budget African superhero film received, in the same way "Wonder Women" earned raves for being a landmark of the genre.
     As an old white guy, I don't have much standing in evaluating the importance of representation in sci-fi action films; in fact, these superheroes movies are so far away from the kind of stories I relate to, emotionally or intellectually, that I can't imagine anyone caring at all about the  race, gender or ethnicity of these fantasy figures.        
     That said, this better-than-your-average Marvel junk is set in the fictional African country of Wakanda that keeps secret the advanced technological society they've created with the help of an otherworldly metal deposit of something called Vibranium. Yet, and this is where the film started to lose me, they have a king (Chadwick Boseman, who was marvelous as James Brown in "Get on Up") who must wrestling  any challengers to the crown on the edge of a waterfall after the death of his father. It's like modern British prime minister candidates fighting a duel.
     In the film's effort to melt historical African life with an advanced culture, it felt as if it was playing right into the stereotypes it was attempting to bust. How had this society, more advanced than any in the world, missed the lesson on democracy or, at least, not moved on from the tribal mentality of another century? Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler is a very talented filmmaker, but I wonder if he thought through that aspect of "Black Panther."
    The plot involves some missing Vbranium, which leads to the American cousin Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) returning to Wakanda to claim the throne and shake up the country's centuries-old policy of seclusion. (I swear, this was also the plot of one of those Maurice Chevalier-Jeanette MacDonald musicals from the 1930s.)
      But this all turns on the incredulous idea that no Wakandian has tried to make a fortune out in the world with even a fraction of this technology the country has possessed for hundreds of years. I can hear you shouting: "It's a comic book movie! Forget logic!" Sorry, I just can't.
     I also wanted to see some representatives of the actual citizens of this amazing country and how they live out their lives, rather than just the royal family and others of high standing. But the most interesting character in the film is the king's sister Shuri (24-year-old TV actress Letitia Wright), who gets all the spunky dialogue and singlehandedly--again, where are the teams of techs?--seems to keep the country running.
    Boseman's King T'Challa, who takes on superhero status as Black Panther when he drinks a bit of the magic formula, has the poise and look of royalty but doesn't make for a very compelling protagonist, coming off as a bit dull compared to Killmonger or tribal rival M'Baku (Winston Duke).
     Jordon, who starred in the director's riveting debut, "Fruitvale Station," and his first-rate Rocky-reboot "Creed," dominates the second-half of the film and makes you seriously question the validity of the Panther's legitimacy.
    It's that dichotomy that gives the film is heft and makes it stand out from the likes of "Iron Man," "Captain American," "Thor" and other CGI train-wrecks. It's not Shakespeare, or even August Wilson, but it stands out in a shallow genre.  


HOSTILES (2017)
    This throwback Western begins with a brutal scene you don't expect to see in a 21st Century film: a Comanche war party attacks a white homestead in the middle of nowhere, killing a father and his young children and sending his wife running into the hills where she just barely avoids the same fate.
    Meanwhile (there's always a meanwhile in Westerns), Capt. Blocker (Christian Bale, at his most understated), a fierce and determined killer of hostile Indians, is ordered to escort his moral enemy and current military prisoner Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Hollywood veteran Wes Studi)  and his family back to their homeland.
     Along the way, they come upon the burnt-out home and find the barely sane wife, Rosalie, (a terrific Rosamund Pike) still comforting her dead baby.
     This travelling metaphor for white America's incursion into the West adds a man condemned to die for crimes against the Native people (the always intense Ben Foster), who is an old running mate of Blocker, after a stop at a military outpost.
   What makes this Scott Cooper-directed film--who also penned the script based on manuscript by Oscar-winner Donald E. Stewart (for "Missing")--so interesting is the very believable transition that both Blocker and Rosalie make after spending days on the road with the Native Americans.
    I was surprised that the Academy didn't acknowledge Studi with a nomination; he's been so convincing so often as Hollywood's designated Native-American since "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992). Here he has the chance to not only be dignified, but instrumental in showing the whites that the Natives are as diverse (good and bad) as any other people.
      Of course, Bale and Pike both play essentially didactic characters, yet they remain human, filled with impossible contradictions and unforgivable flaws.
     In his short time as a director, Cooper has guided Jeff Bridges to his long-deserved Oscar in "Crazy Heart" (2009); made the gritty urban drama "Out of the Furnace" (2013) with Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson; and directed the underrated mob film "Black Mass" (2015) with Johnny Depp. But this is his best work yet, depicting the brutal violence and hatred of the 1890s West while addressing the uncomfortable complexities that came with the white settlement of western America.


PHANTOM THREAD (2017)
    Paul Thomas Anderson's unruly collage of sex, drugs and bad disco, "Boogie Nights," remains the centerpiece of his reputation as one of American finest filmmakers. Yet since "Magnolia" (1999), another crazy quilt of a movie, his films have been overtly focused on self-centered, obsessive men who strive to create their own private world.
   "Punch-Drunk Love," "There Will Be Blood," and "The Master" all felt like exercises in bloodless filmmaking, in which minimal acting and ill-defined motivations robbed the stories of any connection to real life. Anderson's other film this century, "Inherent Vice," is the opposite, a shaggy dog comedy that is nearly incoherent.
     Though "Phantom Thread" is yet another study of one man's tightly controlled world, the film revolves around the woman who attempts to let some air into that world, refusing to be deterred by this haughty, 1950s London fashion designer.
     Daniel Day-Lewis, who took home the Oscar for his over-the-top Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood," plays Reynolds Woodcock, a British clothing designer whose demand for perfection extends from his work to his everyday life. While his clients, the rich and famous, adore him, he goes through companions like flimsy socks.
      He demands a life so orderly that only his humorless, sour-faced sister Cyril (a superb Lesley Manville), who handles the finances of the business, knows how to manage him.
    Then Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a naive younger woman working as a waitress in a small restaurant near his country estate and takes her in as his latest muse.
      What she finds is a very different world made almost impenetrable by Reynolds and Cyril. But she persists, sometimes in most unusual ways, to maintain her relationship. She truly loves him, for reasons that are difficult to phantom; but then isn't all love nearly impossible to understand from the outside?
     Of course, Day-Lewis is the main attraction here, giving yet another precisely calibrated, nuanced performance that apparently will be his final screen appearance. I don't think any British actor has ever retired from the screen, let alone at the age of 60--I fully expect a grand return in five or six years.
      But if it is his final turn on the big screen, then he goes off with one of his top performances, in a career filled with amazing work that has earned him three best actor Academy Awards (only Katharine Hepburn has more acting wins).
      "Lincoln" and "The Age of Innocence" are his finest performances and place him near the top in any argument over the finest film actor of the past 30 years
      What is most impressive about his Reynolds Woodcock is the way Day Lewis makes every hand movement, every raised eyebrow, every quick peek over his reading glasses, every slight turn of his body into a meaningful layer of this complex, needy man. It adds to the actor's legacy that began in the 1980s with "My Beautiful Laundrette," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and, giving him his first Oscar, "My Left Foot."
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STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)
   In general, I enjoy any film connected to the "Star Wars" franchise more than most sci-fi action pictures (though episodes I-III were tough sledding), but I miss the time when they were special.
     Now that they pop up as often as Marvel superhero films, the stories don't have that "I've been waiting years for this" resonance. It's a simple case of diminishing returns.
    In this episode, part XIII in the original series, the story picks up right where "The Force Awakens" left off with Rey (Daisy Ridley) trying to convince Luke Skywalker (a sullen Mark Hamill) to join his sister, General Leia (Carrie Fisher, in her final performance) as the rebellion fights for its life. Who would have guessed?
    Rey also experiences some kind of mind-melt connection with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), one-time Skywalker protégé and son of the late Hans Solo and Leia, along with being the grandson of, well, you know who....
   Though there is plenty of blasting and spectacular space battles, the story of Rey and Kylo is at the heart of this new cycle of "Star Wars." Yet, it seems to be stretching both actors well beyond their range.
    Ridley was perfect as the no-nonsense, resourceful action figure in "The Force Awakens," but her unending psychological confrontations with Skywalker and Kylo feel unconvincing and forced. And Driver is worse.
      Though he gave solid performances in two 2016 films, "Paterson" and "Silence," he comes off in his "Star Wars" role as a nerdy high school student trying to act tough. Not once in these two films have I found his traitorous villain  convincingly menacing or a worthy foe for the earnest rebellion. (He's not quite Hayden Christensen bad, but that's a very low bar).
    Fisher, who died in December 2016 at age 60, has a surprisingly substantial role, a memorable screen farewell for this child of Hollywood, while Oscar Isaac and John Boyega return as Rey's loyal men of action, doing their best to stop the evil First Order. Though the most spiky performance of the film comes from Benicio Del Toro, an untrustworthy mercenary, doing a very funny Jack Nicholson impression.
     That it was written and directed by Rian Johnson, best known for the quirky high school noir "Brick" and the sci-fi labyrinth "Looper," raised my hopes. Yes, it's entertaining, but then so will the one they'll release in May and then in December and then in.....