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Film Review

New Films: Phantom Thread, The Post, The Commuter, Paddington 2

January is perhaps the strangest time of the year at the multiplex. In order to qualify for the Oscars, films have to play for at least a week in LA before the end of the year, but they don’t have to open elsewhere. So January brings the slow roll-out of the final awards season contenders, like “The Post” and “Phantom Thread.” But it also sees the opposite end of the spectrum, in films that will likely be long forgotten by the next awards season, like “The Commuter,” which is only one of two films that opened this week, featuring an insurance salesman fighting a villain on a speeding train. The other is “Paddington 2,” a further entry in the franchise that turns quiet little childrens’ books into action adventures (with more of the same to come soon in “Peter Rabbit”).

Paddington 2” is somewhat lighter and brighter than “Paddington,” although still somewhat out of step with the source material. These adaptations are a little like replacing Vin Diesel in the “Fast & Furious” series with Winnie the Pooh (“Oh bother, muttered Pooh, as he drifted a little wide on Hundred Acre Wood curve”).

Here Paddington finds himself in prison after a scheming actor (Hugh Grant) steals an old pop-up book of London that has clues to a hidden fortune. And while it’s fun to see Paddington introduce hardened criminals to marmalade sandwiches, it’s an odd setup for a film for small children, making the criminal justice system seem so capricious that it would imprison such a charming, small, framed bear, especially for an extended period of time. Which leads to a prison break and the aforementioned train ride, during which Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) auditions for “The Commuter 2.”

Prior to that, Liam Neeson stars in “The Commuter,” a film that ruins an interesting idea by stringing together too many speeding train clichés before finally jumping the Spartacus, and tracks. But, at its core, the concept of somebody using a regular commuter to spot somebody out of place on the train they ride every day, especially one who just happens to be an ex-cop, is intriguing. As he tries to narrow down the suspects, it becomes “Murderer on the Tarrytown Express” before buckling under the weight of an unnecessarily complicated plot. Not that it’s enormously complicated, just more so than it needed to be to make the concept work, especially with a cast that outclasses the material.

An even higher-wattage cast lights up “The Post,” a film about The Washington Post’s role in the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The problem with that premise is that the Pentagon Papers were first published, after extensive work, by The New York Times. But if this is taken purely as a film about the risky decision to publish, albeit second to the Times, after the Times had already been ordered in federal court to stop publishing the content, it actually works quite well.

Meryl Streep plays Katherine Graham, the Post’s publisher, who had inherited the paper from her husband who had previously inherited it from her father, and Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor. It’s a compelling combination and a very timely story, although perhaps more compellingly timely than it is compellingly good. At a time when print journalism, and the media in general, is being attacked by the current Administration, and newspapers are coincidentally slashing payrolls, it’s fascinating to revisit an era in which the owners valued large pools of reporters and stood up to power so successfully. If “Spotlight” felt like a eulogy for long form journalism, “The Post” feels like the prologue to the heyday of Administration-toppling stories, one likely to make viewers wonder if the era of “fake news” risks being the epilogue to the same story.

The last of the new films reviewed this week is also the last, we are told, to feature Daniel Day-Lewis, who has announced his retirement from acting (although he has had extended absences in the past). In “Phantom Thread,” Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, an eccentric and extremely successful haute couture dressmaker in 1950’s London. He’s a man of precise habit, used to having others, including his girlfriends, adjust to his behaviors with little or no compromise in return. That is, until he meets a new muse in Alma (Vicky Krieps), previously a waitress, who he meets in a seaside restaurant while taking a break from work.

It’s essentially a character study of two strong-willed individuals, sparring for dominance in a relationship, like a whip-free “Fifty Shades of Vintage Off-White Whimsy.” But it’s also a film with scenes that take you out of the moment, like shots of Reynolds speeding down narrow country roads and through villages, with walls and hedgerows lit up behind him as though his Bristol 405 has headlights on the back. Which leads me to another issue I had with the film, the car itself.

This is going to seem petty, but everything else about the depiction of Reynolds is so precise. He’s not a generous man in his dealings with others, a character trait not unique to him as his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) is depicted similarly. She’s not only closer to him than his lovers, but she’s the one tasked with getting rid of them. And so it seems odd that he would be shown driving the only four-door Bristol ever made – a marque that otherwise fits the hand-made milieu of his world. He’s not the kind of guy to transport others in a backseat and, in the unlikely event that he might, he wouldn’t care if they were inconvenienced by having to clamber in and out past a folded seat. And he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would deliver his own merchandise, another potential reason for a roomy car for a more reasonable guy.

If you watch the film (and this will really make more sense afterwards), imagine the following (made up) exchange in which Cyril, the manager of his life, presents him with his new car:

Cyril: “Your new car, Reynolds, isn’t it marvelous?”

Reynolds: “It’s a bus. Why have you bought me a bus?”

Cyril: “What!? Don’t be silly, it’s a hand-made Bristol!”

Reynolds: “It has four doors. Do you want me to sell tickets and wear a cap!?”

Cyril: “It’s the most perfect car and very limited production. You’re being a cad a usual.”

Reynolds: “I wanted a 404 and I think I’m being rather gallant even considering driving it back to the dealer myself!”

That said, it’s a beautiful film, oozing quality and fine performances, but at times it feels a little like eating a $28 restaurant burger across the street from In’n’Out and wondering if it was worth the wait. And if I’m overly critical of the portrayal, it might be because he reminds a little too much of myself.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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