Culture, Reviews

Anatomy of a Toxic Relationship

VickyDaniel

Phantom Thread (2017) weaves a story of love, revenge, insanity

Phantom Thread is a study on toxic relationships with a proposal on how to live with it — if you’re insane enough.

Three-time Oscar Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis plays the perfectionist fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. Set in 1950s London, heiresses and royalty come to him for their dresses. To these women, Woodcock is a god who turns them into silken queens in ermine coats.

Woodcock carries an air of silent dukedom and magnetism, a calm flirtatiousness that streams out in choice words. We see this perfectly when he retreats to the countryside and meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), the young, coy, and audacious waitress who serves him breakfast. The first time they talk, you’d think they’d known each other for years. Not that they talk profusely; they don’t, they’re British. In fact, a formal customer-waitress transaction ensues, but you know a life-long deal is already being negotiated. You just know one is tailor made for the other. They know it, too.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) believes he’ll never get married because of his profession. Photo: Focus Features

So soon Alma finds herself in London, working for Woodcock as assistant and model. But more than that, she is the old man’s muse and sweetheart.

Trouble begins to brew during breakfast when Woodcock demands fuss-free silence over the table. Alma was buttering her toast and tinkling some china and disturbing Woodcock from his dress-sketching reverie. The man stormed out of the room, enraged.

Woodcock then maintains a manipulative and demanding behavior that smothers Alma’s naivety. There’s already a preview to this attitude in the couple’s first after-date date, at Woodcock’s country cottage, when he took Alma’s measurements, with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) noting the numbers. “You have no breasts,” he said, casually. The startled girl apologized, and Woodcock just said, “no, no, you’re perfect” — to the girl’s baffled relief — “My job to give you some. If I choose to.” When Woodcock went out of the room to get a sample dress, Cyril noted that Alma actually has the ideal shape. The scene was weird, but you’re endeared, like Alma, to the thought that for once, what you thought was a weakness is actually a strength.

Breakfast is time dedicated to silence, at least according to Reynolds Woodcock. Photo: Focus Features

Too bad, Alma is too insecure to leave Woodcock inspite of his genteel douchery; she craves his attention, his esteem. At one crucial point, he tells her he doesn’t need her.

Then the world goes upside down.

Alma takes her revenge. The story goes to a sickening swerve, making you question your previous feelings towards the couple. Is it right to hurt the person you love, who happens to be a prick in tuxedo? Will you tolerate an endless cycle of abuse, knowing that…you can do something similar and reignite that early-stage romance?

According to one writer, the film seems to be the best “food movie” in recent memory. Photo: Focus Features

Phantom Thread — one of the Best Picture nominees at the 2018 Oscars — is a beautiful zooming in to contrasts: Woodcock’s posh lifestyle versus Alma’s rustic upbringing; his exact measurements and demands versus her haphazard outlook in life; his condescension versus her tacit rebellion; his superstitions versus her culinary science; his loving and wounding, and hers.

In the end, one may feel sympathy for the two loonies — for the old man who has not grown up and for the young woman who’s ready to mother him…their niche of Freudian f*ckery. But I bet no one wants that kind of relationship — a prequel to hell.

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Culture

Help Wanted

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Kathryn Stockett’s The Help boasts humor and heartbreak

Everyone has a story. Many tend to have a ready audience; others struggle to make a few listen. But some of them just don’t get to tell it at all — because society forbids it.

Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, revolves around the lives of three women in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s who are bound by a uniting misery — alienation, a need to be heard.

But how can they overcome it? Aibileen and Minny are oppressed, black maids with their grim stories: Aibileen — still recovering from her son’s sudden death four years ago — has raised and loved 17 white children, some of whom have now unloved her because of her skin color; meanwhile Minny has more children (and a bigger mouth) than she can handle, and is reputed to cook Jackson’s best chocolate cream pie (chief villain Hilly Holbrook can attest to that). Skeeter, on the other hand, is fresh out of college and single — the worst combination for a decent white woman, according to her mother — and rather the ostrich among her flamingo friends: Skeeter is just too different. The three end up writing a book that would rock Jackson to the core.

Viola Davis as Aibileen. She was nominated in the Oscars for Best Actress. Photo: Dreamworks

Throughout the book, Stockett displays her genius in humor, drama, and nuanced characterizations. The story alternates through the perspectives (and dialects) of its three protagonists — equally insightful, of course, but Minny’s point of view is the juiciest and spiciest. She reminds you of the officemate who whispers between snortles on how tacky the manager’s dress was at last night’s gala.

The novel also has no shortage of heart-wrenching subplots: Aibileen’s relationship with her ward kid, Mae Mobley, who doesn’t get any love from her witless mother; Skeeter’s love-hate relationship with her own manipulative mother; and the overall plight of the black community described in the book.

What’s great about Stockett is that she made sure all the characters were flesh-and-bones human. There is a strong advocacy for equality, sure, but the sort that says whether black or white, people do good and bad. The characters’ complexities bring diverse flavors to the book’s 453 pages, which do not feel long at all.

Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly), Sissy Spacek (Hilly’s mom), and Octavia Spencer (Minny) have the most hilariously gross scene in the film. Photo: Dreamworks

Two years after Stockett published The Help — her debut novel — writer-director Tate Taylor adapted the book to a film starring Viola Davis (Aibileen), Emma Stone (Skeeter), and Octavia Spencer (Minny) who won Best Supporting Actress in the Oscars. The film was also nominated for Best Picture.

Totally not bad for a debut novel.

And I confirm the rumor is true: The Help is outstanding, both book and film. It’s one of those pieces of art that make you think — no matter your skin color or other data you put in your curriculum vitae— “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

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Culture

Pre-Watergate heroism in The Post (2017)

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Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham. Photo by Niko Tavernise

One of the best films on journalism and empowered women

It’s wonderful how, especially in recent years, Hollywood has come to appreciate journalism as an industry, even to Oscar-award levels.

In 2016, Spotlight won Best Picture. In 2018, The Post almost did.

I love The Post.

It’s based on the 1971 story of Katharine Graham, first female publisher of a major newspaper (The Washington Post), and how she grappled with conflicting interests — a choice between keeping her friends, reputation, and (possibly) profits; or upholding freedom of the press and defying douchey US president Nixon.

Meryl Streep, as Graham, is divine as ever. You’ll see her character’s subtle transformation from a nervous, reluctant heiress of a newspaper (from her charismatic husband who had committed suicide), to a woman who — after a lifetime of being ignored or dismissed — has realized she has a voice: that of being the boss. There’s a scene where she, teary-eyed and torn to two sides, makes a decision that changes her life forever. You can’t help but feel victorious with her.

The Post is one of those movies that make you think, “The question is only whether to print or not to print — yet it’s nail-biting as shit!” But then, it’s a Steven Spielberg film. Artful montages of newspaper production — infused with music by John Williams — create an accelerating tension that will leave you breathless. Tom Hanks (as editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee) is also effective as the fire-spitting, feet-on-the-desk editor who locks horns with (albeit in a gentlemanly way) his publisher friend.

I have my reservations about how the Vietnam war scene was made, though. Spielberg chose the dramatic irony route, and I wonder how it would have been if it were in a different way.

But — yeah — The Post is awesome! I watched it twice and still found it riveting the second time. Five dazzling stars!

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Culture

Angels and Demons and Popes

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Sculptures at the Trevi Fountain. Photo by Ivan Bertona on Unsplash

Why Rome should be on your bucket list

Recently I watched Angels and Demons (2009), Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s bestselling novel. It’s tolerable. Tom Hanks as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is bland — but then we don’t really care, because Langdon isn’t the reason Angels and Demons is remarkable: it’s the fact that the story is set in the culturally rich city of Rome.

I’ve been to Rome once, in 2007, and I still get violently nostalgic and paralyzing daydreams of my visit there. It was there that I realized what a paradoxical city Rome is, and how it should be part of anybody’s bucket list.

St Peter’s Basilica. Photo by Yeo Khee on Unsplash

It is a melting pot of cultures. For conservatives, it is of course the epicenter of faith (and power): it’s where the Pope lives (well, technically, no; but Vatican City and Rome are geographically too close and confusing that you can say the Vatican is Rome). It’s also a place where there’s a church in every corner, with artworks by Renaissance masters as well as relics of saints. And for liberals, it is a hub of freedom and license — even the birthplace and home of bacchanalia.

So it is perfectly normal to smell incense inside Santa Maria del Popolo one moment, and then fumigation-level cigarette smoke in the next, as you exit. Don’t be surprised to see couples smooching down Circo Massimo’ sloping fields…after your short walk to the Basilica of St John Lateran. And don’t forget: that Roman air you’re breathing? — it’s infused with essences from laws enforcing divorce, abortion, and euthanasia. All this contrast and heterogeneity is, for me, strangely…beautiful. It echoes words from St Paul’s letter to (precisely) the Romans:

Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.

Also, Rome is a city-size “museum”. Once you’re there, you won’t really absolutely need to enter any museum, because there are museum-level sights even if you are outdoors: Castel Sant Angelo, the Colosseum, Piazza Spagna, Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, even the Tiber River. Just get a good Internet connection and consult Google Maps and Wikipedia entries about the places you’re visiting (but don’t believe Wikipedia too much — it’s like your regular tour guide who mixes facts and rumors).

Castel Sant Angelo along the Tiber River. Photo by Mauricio Artieda on Unsplash

But by saying “Rome is in itself a museum”, I’m not saying “don’t go to museums”! The most cherished treasures still are in well guarded enclosed rooms, most famously the Vatican Museums (again, I’m considering the name “Rome” quite loosely here).

A visit to the Vatican Museums is worth the queues and the euros. Inside you’ll find roomfuls of masterpieces, including those by three of the four Ninja Turtles: Raphael, Leonardo, and Michaelangelo (Donatello has a ciborium at St Peter’s Basilica, though). The most overwhelming part of the Vatican Museums tour is certainly the climax — the Sistine Chapel. Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment and the Biblical scenes on the chapel’s ceilings are simply dazzling. From afar, the characters seem alive and three-dimensional. This part of the tour is best when there are few visitors — when you can dare lie on the floor and marvel at the famed ceiling…and the fact that this very room has produced popes in the last 500 years.

Sistine Chapel ceiling. Photo by Aaron Logan on Wikimedia

For me, however, the foremost reason Rome is just absolutely #1 on my bucket list is this: it’s the center of Catholicism, the Pope’s home (don’t get me started on the jurisdiction stickler-talk). If you can, visit Rome during Holy Week. Nothing beats an Easter Vigil Mass with no less than the Pope at St Peter’s Basilica. In the darkness of that Holy Saturday at St Peter’s 11 years ago, I shuddered thinking about the tumultuous history of the Church, filled with sinners and saints; the unbroken succession of 266 Bishops of Rome, from Peter to Francis; the many artists and intellectuals who have drawn inspiration from this timeless city aptly called Eternal; and, of course, how Robert Langdon, the boring symbologist, saved the day, again.

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Culture

Loco over Coco (2017)

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Photo by Filip Gielda on Unsplash

This Pixar feature is a classic

Coco (2017) is certainly Pixar’s best movie. What drew me to the film is not exactly its stunning visuals, but the emotions you’ll share with the characters.

Little Miguel pursues a dream that brings him to the underworld — the dream of becoming a musician and meeting his great-grandfather. He learns life (and death) lessons along the way, of course.

I’m guessing the film made the most money in collectivist-religious societies like the Philippines (and Mexico, certainly, where the story is set). It’s in these cultures where love for family seems to be most manifested and celebrated. While Mexicans have Dia de Muertos, we Filipinos have Undas which commemorates — to a quasi-festive level — our beloved departed. It’s the same theme of remembering dead loved ones whom, in a sometimes macabre manner, we treat as alive (e.g. talking to their graves and leaving them their favorite food or drink).

Coco (2017) movie poster from Disney/Pixar

I like how the movie pulls you to become part of Miguel’s family. Suddenly I loved Mama Coco (Miguel’s soft-spoken great-grandmother who has severe dementia) — or was it that I just missed my grandmother who died more than a decade ago? Suddenly I felt sad for Hector, who can’t visit the land of the living because nobody remembers him anymore — or was it that I suddenly became conscious of loved ones whom I’ve taken for granted and somehow forgotten? It’s these feelings that make Coco quite the hammer blow to my oh-so-fragile heart.

In the end, Coco reminds us that life on earth is fluid and impermanent. It’s a continuous welcoming and letting go. And it’s sad, really. But then, put into the picture love and memory. The whole drama of life and love and loss unfolds. And it’s beautiful. Sad, but beautiful. But, as the film suggests, there’s no need to lose joy: there is always the hope of ultimate reunion.

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