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If only PHANTOM THREAD had been based on real life couture god Charles James. At least the clothes would have been beautiful. Here Daniel Day-Lewis as designer Reynolds Woodcock spends the entire movie needling his seamstresses as they sweat over what look like aproned doilies and lumpy Halloween costumes.

OK. A few of those gowns were passable, but I had high hopes for the film; I love fashion, English period pieces, Daniel Day-lewis, and sometimes, Paul Thomas Anderson. Not this time. The script is strangely obvious and dramatically flat, something I NEVER thought I’d say about the creator of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, MAGNOLIA, THE MASTER, BOOGIE NIGHTS.  Here, Anderson channels Bergman minus the complexity, and Hitchcock minus the suspense, and comes up with a tedious concoction that not even a deluge of frogs or Daniel Day-Lewis could rescue.

The universally acclaimed Oscar winning actor Day-Lewis has declared that this is his last role as an actor. Say it isn’t so. Don’t leave us with this weirdly drab, psycho-sexual pretension about a mommy-obsessed neurotic with a hankering for a mate who Munchausens him into submission. That mate would be Alma, his latest muse and lover, played by alluringly subtle newcomer Vicky Krieps. Together Alma and Woodcock generate a flameless heat which left me cold.

Mr. Woodcock’s scrupulously groomed appearance, magenta socks, and fussy affect would have been entertaining had they been the result of some intriguing inner dilemma. Alas, the meticulously prepped Day-Lewis may have been able to sew a couture gown from scratch as part of his preparation, but is unable to invest this off-putting character with a compelling or merely mysterious inner life. Woodcock is persnickety on the surface and wearisome underneath. When he flinched at the deafening sound of Alma buttering her toast, or flew into a rage over her “ambushing” him with a home-cooked meal, I wanted to slap him and his tightlipped dominatrix of a sister Cyril (Lesley Manville by way of “Frau Blucher.” Might this have been a comedy?)

The dialogue is a sludgy porridge of innuendo: “I feel as though I have been looking for you for a very long time,” Woodcock intones after meeting Alma. But later after she prepares his asparagus incorrectly: “Are you sent here to ruin my evening and possibly my entire life?” Perhaps.  “There is an air of quiet death in this house,” he mutters one afternoon in his atelier…

Yeah. Love and marriage are hard. But PT Anderson unlocks no new insights, nor does he give these poor characters any reason to exist. All the gussets, draping, stitching, tailoring, lace and satin can’t disguise the tedium in progress. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes; the emperor is a phantom.

As for THE POST, despite the relevance of its themes, the quality of the performances, and the prestige of cast and crew–Spielberg directing Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep onscreen together for the first time, this movie about The Washington Post defying the courts in order to publish the Pentagon Papers which would reveal the government’s awareness of the futility of continuing the war in Viet Nam– is conventional and corny.

Hanks plays jaunty Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Streep plays the paper’s owner Katharine Graham with initial hesitation but growing confidence. Graham’s role as a woman coming into herself is especially timely, and largely unknown to me. Watching her walk into a boardroom full of grey-suited white men who don’t take her seriously was painfully familiar. We watch her rise to the occasion, her self-doubt becoming determination as she takes on the business of the newspaper inherited from her late husband, helping to forge the identity of that institution and eventually striking a crucial blow for freedom of the press.

But Spielberg has no new tricks up his sleeve and we are well-acquainted with how his old story-telling tricks work: the tight shots of secret late night phone calls, sweeping shots of reporters running through the newsroom, the rolling of a pencil on a desk, echoed later and inevitably by a montage of papers rolling triumphantly off presses and landing in bundles on the streets. The shot that put me over the edge was Streep’s Kay Graham victoriously walking down the stairs of a courthouse, past the admiring upward gaze of a phalanx of awestruck young women. Yikes. The obviousness of it was embarrassing. We got it.

The final scenes of the film hitch the publishing of the Pentagon Papers to the Watergate break-in, in case we weren’t sure of the ramifications of what we just saw. I hated knowing every move, every beat; there was no real suspense. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of every detail, but the air of desperation here betrays the filmmaker’s lack of confidence in the dramatic import of this material. What might have helped? A different director.

I, TONYA, however, puts a provocative spin on history. Margot Robbie in a bravura, kick ass performance plays Tonya Harding the figure skater best known for maybe engineering the bashing in of her nemesis’ Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. As the media would have it, it was the queen of trailer trash vs. the ice princess– but hindsight makes a mockery of that tabloid trope. Here the tale is told by Tonya, and she wants you to get one thing straight: the path to the truth is crooked. Director Craig Gillespie (REAL GIRL) and writer Steven Rogers (HOPE FLOATS) take this idea and skate on the edge, right along with Tonya who becomes the first woman to land a triple axel in competition as well as the most reviled figure in all of skating. They also deliver a scathing indictment of the media, American class consciousness, and its corrosive impact on a superlative athlete who was apparently on thin ice from the get go.

The buffoons and meanies in Tonya’s circle made her achievements all the more remarkable, from her sniveling, abusive husband Jeff Gillooly  (Sebastian Stan) and knuckle-headed body guard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), to her chain-smoking, parrot-toting Cruella De Vil of a mother LaVona played with rabid, hilarious intensity by Allison Janney–who just won a Golden Globe and is sure to be nominated for an Oscar.

It took a while for me to adjust to the tall, gorgeous, high cheek-boned Margot Robbie playing the short-legged, pugnacious 15 year old Tonya Harding. But Robbie hunkers down and gives it her all, off and on the ice; the skating scenes are so ingeniously edited (how did they do that?) that Robbie who practiced for months and actually does a lot of the skating appears to do all of the stunts herself! She is the icing on the rink.

Weekend Movies: Phantom Thread, The Post & I, Tonya was last modified: by

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