“Phantom Thread” is a Hot Mess

I’ve been a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis since The Last of the Mohicans, which I’ve seen many times. As the critics say, nobody inhabits a role the way he does. So after all the raves for Phantom Thread, and the Oscar nominations, I expected to swoon over what’s apparently going to be his last film.

He plays Reynolds Woodcock, a successful haute couture designer in London in the 1950s who’s meticulous, eccentric, obsessive, and an uber-curmudgeon. Someone “noisily” buttering her toast at breakfast can apparently spoil the equilibrium of his entire day. Woodcock’s no-nonsense, stylish, highly efficient  sister is his business partner and their bond is intense.  Then a disruptive force comes into their lives when Woodcock invites Alma, a waitress he meets outside of London, to move in, work at his atelier, and be a model.

And that’s when the movie slowly goes off the rails, losing all psychological believability. We don’t know anything significant about Alma’s background–and barely anything about Woodcock’s–so the attraction between them seems shadowy and even creepy.

It becomes more than that when Woodcock impulsively decides to marry Alma and almost immediately finds her a malign influence on his couture business: “There’s the smell of death in this house” he laments to his sister, and he can’t concentrate on his work. As if we’ve switched to some kind of dark fable, Alma poisons him to get him under her control. Twice. And he seems to enjoy it.  I’m not making any of that up.

None of this is convincing or coherent in a movie that relishes surfaces: beautiful interiors, gleaming dress fabrics, pearls shining on aristocratic necks.  What’s sadly missing in this film that drags on past two hours is background and depth.  Who are these people, really, and what makes them behave the way they do?

On a more basic level, but just as important, what’s Woodcock’s status in the world of fashion?  Why are his clothes suddenly not fashionable enough for some clients?  The gorgeous surfaces and the inside view of the intense labor involved by a whole team of people to create couture may be dazzling–but they cover up way too many gaps and ambiguities.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and on line at writewithoutborders.com.

Reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” As an Adult

When the first Hobbit movie was coming out, I re-read the novel I loved as a kid to reacquaint myself with the story and was more enthralled than I expected to be.

The wry voice was something I missed as a twelve-year-old in love with the adventure and fantasy, and I reconnected immediately with what moved me most the first time: the ways Bilbo’s fooled Gollum and the dragon. In each case, the small, clever Hobbit outwits a fierce enemy.  That was a real treat for me as a bookish, picked-on kid with a tough older brother.


Harper Lee’s Scout also defeated monsters when she helped defuse the mob in front of the jail. It’s one of the best scenes in To Kill A Mockingbird–if not entirely believable.  But Scout herself doesn’t hold up for me today because I just don’t believe her voice. She often sounds too mature for an eight-year-old, like when she thought near the end of the book (according to her adult self) “there wasn’t much else for us to learn, except possibly algebra.”

190px-MockingbirdfirstAnd I’m mixed about the book itself: it feels like an uneven blend of southern novel of manners with the “race novel” Lee originally intended, folded into a  courtroom drama which seems clichéd–through no fault of hers. We’ve all read so much John Grisham and Scott Turow, or maybe I have as a long-time crime fiction reviewer.  The story of the rape accusation takes way too long to get going.  And in terms of suspense, the final appearance of Boo Radley is a letdown after all the mystery and tension.  He’s just not that interesting.

Some of Atticus’s sentiments also grated on my nerves, like his belief that “a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human.” That feels hopelessly naive and sentimental–especially when you consider that Lee wrote the book after The Holocaust.  But closer to home, there was the brutality she saw in the south directed at Civil Rights protestors.

Flannery O’Connor damned the novel with pretty faint praise when it came out: “I think for a child’s book it does all right.” That seems unduly harsh (and unfair to YA literature). What works best for me as an adult reader is the local color, the barbed social comedy, and the graceful prose.

Of course the book’s dramatic core couldn’t be timelier: today’s America is still grappling with racial injustice just as Harper Lee’s fictional town was in Depression-era Alabama.  That’s sadly a story which seems to make the news every week–if not more often.

Lev Raphael’s 25 book Assault With a Deadly Lie is a suspense novel about militarized police.  It was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.

Fifty Shades of Wut?!

Now that E. L. James has published Grey, which tells the events of Fifty Shades of Grey from Christian’s perspective (without any shades, it seems), it might be time for you to catch up to the film version in case you missed it.

People often complain that movies don’t live up to the books they’re made from.  But let me assure you, Fifty Shades of Grey is very faithful to the original material. It’s a stone dud, too.  I finally caught up with the movie myself recently and can tell you that the first ten minutes perfectly set the stage.  There’s a piss-poor, logy version of the classic “You Put a Spell on Me” on the sound track that sounds as if Annie Lennox were embarrassed to have her name associated with the project.  But hey, it must have been a hefty paycheck.

Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-soundtrackThat stinker sets the mood perfectly for Dakota Johnson, who’s the embodiment of the novel’s unreal nebbishy Anastasia.  It’s totally unbelievable that she’d dress like a schlump for a big-deal interview, that she hasn’t read through the questions beforehand, and that she stumbles when she opens a door into Grey’s office.  Just as his attraction to her defies belief.  All of which makes the book idiotic from the get-go and the movie a good clone.

dakota_johnson_3Once those ten achingly long minutes of the film are past, a desert of inanity stretches ahead of you. You lose the novel’s atrocious prose, but in its place there’s atrocious acting which is a reasonable substitute.  And since there’s no real erotic chemistry in the book, the fact that the leads seem to be sleepwalking through the film even when their clothes are off totally fits. What’s strangest of all is that Jamie Dornan seemed much sexier playing opposite Gillian Anderson in The Fall.  He was a psycho in that series.  Go figure.  Maybe the beard helped.

TV STILL -- DO NOT PURGE -- Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dorman from "The Fall" season 2. Photo courtesy of NetflixIn the film, he comes across as a pretty accessory like the ties, cufflinks, and watches in his dressing room we see at the beginning of the movie.  That was a highlight, cinematically speaking, if you’re into luxury goods at least.

Best moment of the movie, though: the trashy Victorian porn peacock feather.  My spouse hadn’t read the book and muttered sarcastically when it came out, “Oh, dear.”

That pretty much sums it all up.

What I’d like to see is RuPaul’s version: Throwing Fifty Shades of Grey.  Now that could be fun.

Lev Raphael is an avid movie goer, having been raised on classic films of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties.  You can find his 25 books on Amazon.

 

 

 

Abs, Death, and Femjep

Characters in thrillers–especially the women–live in a parallel universe, don’t they? A universe where they’ve never read a thriller or seen one on TV or in a movie theater. Because otherwise they wouldn’t behave like idiots even now, heading past the middle of the decade.

Take Jennifer Lopez in this year’s erotic thriller The Boy Next Door.

She plays a high school teacher of classics–that’s right, and in a school that offers a year-long course in Homer. The poet, not Homer Simpson. It’s one helluva well-paid job because she drives what looks like a Cadillac SUV.

lopez my blogOf course, who cares since you’re either ogling Lopez looking gorgeous in every scene or drooling over ripped Ryan Guzman, the sociopath who moves in next door, befriends her nebbish son, displays his body for Lopez at night in a well-lit bedroom across the way, seduces her and then stalks her in escalating scenes of nightmarish threat and violence.

ryan-guzman-step-up_0It all ends with bizarre family togetherness, but before that, Lopez goes dumb in major ways aside from having humped a high school sociopath. Her bestie phones Lopez to come over right away because she’s in trouble. When Lopez pulls up and the house is totally dark, is she cautious? Nope. Does she call first? No again. She rushes inside. When the lights don’t work, does she back out and dial 911? Well, you guessed it. She proceeds alone and unarmed into the large dark house, calling out her friend’s name.

And in her final confrontation with the psycho hunk, when she gets a chance to take him down, she clunks him on the head just once. Duh! When he’s knocked out, she doesn’t finish the job or even kick him a few times to further incapacitate him, despite knowing how dangerous and twisted he is. He’s tied up her husband and son, threatened to kill them both, killed her best friend, and was going to turn the barn they’re all in into a giant funeral pyre. So of course she turns her back on him.

And of course that one blow doesn’t do the trick. He predictably rises up and attacks her again. More mayhem ensues…and Lopez shrieks enough to win a Yoko Ono Award.

You’d think after Scream had eviscerated this kind of plotting years ago (pun intended), writers would be embarrassed to have their characters behave like dummies, but Hollywood keeps churning out femjep films. Sadly, this one was co-produced by Lopez herself.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

When Motives Miss by a Mile

I started reading crime fiction in high school: Agatha Christie, the Swedish writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, John Creasey, and the comic work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor.  I wasn’t great at solving puzzles, but I was always fascinated by what would actually drive someone to murder.

phoebe atwood taylor

That fascination took a different turn when I started reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press in the 1990s and continued to do so for about a decade.  Motive now wasn’t just something to study, it had to to be convincing, it had to fit perfectly into the entire clever construction of plot–or the carefully-built edifice buckled and sometimes even collapsed.  Reading crime novels where the motive for murder or mayhem was weak made me determined to ensure that my own mysteries never fell short that way.

And because I watch a lot of crime drama on TV and crime movies, I’m often thrown when a motive just doesn’t seem believable.  Case in point.  In a recent episode of Forever, whose sleuth is a medical examiner, a ballerina’s foot was found at a theater.  She was initially presumed dead until it was forensically determined that the foot had been surgically removed so as not to kill her.  Weird, right?  The suspects narrowed down quickly to her ex-surgeon brother and all the evidence was discovered in his home.

But why?  Jealousy?  That didn’t add up.  They’d escaped Cuba together so she could have a great career and she on the point of stardom, about to be dubbed a prima ballerina (the show actually got this wrong, mistaking a prima ballerina assoluta for a prima ballerina)

prima ballerinaThere’s a good chance in crime fiction that the “least likely” suspect is the one who did it, and when she was was found alive, I couldn’t imagine why she would have had her brother do it.  But she did, and here’s the bogus motive the writers came up with: 1) she had a degenerative bone disease and 2) she had only a year to dance and so 3) she wanted to go out in glory and be remembered forever that way.

I’ve known dancers and I thought this was ludicrous.  What dancer would consent to having her foot cut off even if she wouldn’t be able to dance again?  What person would consent to such horrible mutilation and be left crippled for the rest of her life?  Nothing about the character made her seem unhinged enough to do something so radical.

Sometimes crime writers of all kinds try so hard to be original or surprising that they end up just coming off as ridiculous.  This was one of those times.  She was still able to dance and she could have danced with the title and then retired for whatever reason and remained legendary.  Now she’s a legend in a freakish way (and is missing a foot!).  Why would any dancer want to be remembered like that?

Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the Michigan bestseller Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries at his web site.

Into the Woods, Without Delay!

As a writer and story-teller, I’ve been in love with Into the Woods for years. Ever time I see or hear it, I’m awed by Sondheim’s trademark wit, his long elegant vocal lines, his surprising rhymes, his dark humor, his complex music.  So I was worried that the Disney musical would be too cute, but I was wrong; it’s fairly true to the spirit of his work. Disney’s found ways through cinematography and specials effects to capture the heart and soul of an American masterpiece.

The movie is full of surprises. Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep have rich expressive voices and break your heart. Johnny Depp is appropriately creepy as the Wolf and Chris Pine isn’t just a wonderful singer, he’s even funnier and sexier than he was in Star Trek. He almost steals the show in the beautifully staged “Agony.”

There’s more: “On the Steps of the Palace” is absolutely brilliant and it’s not the only show-stopper in a movie which looks and sounds beautiful all the way through.

635531969902481362-ITWAnnaKendrickCinderellaWell, almost. Perhaps to appeal to kids, Disney picked the young actor who played Gavroche in Les Misérables to play Jack. He’s a dud.  His diction and thick accent turn the soaring “Giants in the Sky” into mush.  There are other things you’ll miss if you know the musical. The “Mysterious Man”/Narrator isn’t here in person. Lyrics are trimmed throughout and the two Princes only sing together once.

More seriously, “No More” is cut, and it’s the pivotal song that makes the Baker turn and face his responsibilities. Perhaps most sadly, almost all of the ensembles are axed and so you lose most of Sondheim’s glorious harmonies. You also lose the amazing group finale on screen which is all about journeying into darkness towards self-discovery, a journey that never ends: “Into the woods, each time you go/There’s more to learn of what you know.”

But none of that should stop you from seeing Into the Woods, because it’s deeply moving and often powerful. And there’s always the DVD of the original Broadway production to fill in all the gaps. I mean, moments.

Lev Raphael’s 25th book Assault with a Deadly Lie is a novel of suspense about a journey into the dark woods of stalking, gun violence and police militarization.