Phantom Thread (2017)

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Are you the enemy? It’s 1954.  In post-war London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a fey, fastidious, fussy aesthete, and his unmarried sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are at the centre of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, a foreign waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover: she is literally his house model. Once controlled and planned, he finds his immaculately tailored life disrupted by love and Alma becomes jealous particularly when Reynolds agrees to create the trousseau for a Belgian princess and removes the message ‘not cursed’ from the lining. Then she poisons him on the eve of the wedding to try to create a catastrophe instead of a work of art…. That’s the theory. Everything about this is beautiful, detailed, pointed. What we don’t understand in the cheap seats is how a man like Reynolds Woodcock falls for a plain frumpy dull bovine German (or is she Danish? Dutch?) who to the untrained eye has absolutely nothing interesting about her except an unsophisticated desire for control and an uncontrolled appetite for jealousy. She’s a toddler, as one of his clients tells him. Yes, forty years younger than him and unformed, unlike his designs. This is a character study of three fusspots who don’t like each other and it’s pretty silly, like most couture. Paul Thomas Anderson makes fascinating, idiosyncratic films that mostly have a message be it about culture or circumstance. There are themes running through this like thread through a gown – jealousy, food, sex, creativity:  but they don’t go anywhere and the threadbare plot quickly unravels. Woodcock is clearly modelled on a couple of London couturiers and Cyril is out of Mrs Danvers but ultimately is soft centred. Alma? Don’t ask me. A German seeking revenge for the war?!  I care less. This is hard to fathom, often makes little sense and the conclusion is plain stupid.

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Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)

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I’m slow – but you’re slower!   Travelling con man Latigo Smith (James Garner) drifts into a small Western gold rush town called Purgatory, he decides to take advantage of a local rivalry between gold-mining factions. Recruiting the shifty Jug May (Jack Elam) to pose as a notorious gunfighter, Smith sets his scheme in motion, while also taking time to romance the lovely Patience Barton (Suzanne Pleshette) who likes nothing better than to shoot up the town. However, after his ruse is uncovered, Smith incurs the wrath of the real hired gun (Chuck Connors) among others, leading to a big shoot-out and his inability to ride a horse is artfully exposed:  or is it? …  This unofficial ‘sequel’ to Support Your Local Sheriff features a variation on the conman/trickster persona of Garner (playing a different character) and while James Edward Grant gets the screenplay credit it had an uncredited rewrite by director Burt Kennedy who came to make a speciality of the comedy western following his early genre work in the Scott/Boetticher cycle. This isn’t quite as sharply parodic as the earlier film and it doesn’t possess its coherence rather a series of amusing vignettes including explosions and a bar-room brawl but it has great work by Elam as the oafish sidekick whom Garner identifies to the locals as sharpshooter Swifty Morgan, nice characterisation as the bawdy madam by Joan Blondell, sporting a chihuahua (and she has a visit by fellow proprietress Marie Windsor!) and lovely support by Pleshette as the blast-happy daughter of Harry Morgan who masquerades as a prostitute but is the real love interest. Garner is great, as ever!

20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

Se7en (1995)

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Just because he’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda.  Police Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has a week left on the job when he is set the task of tackling a final case with the aid of newly transferred David Mills (Brad Pitt), they discover a number of elaborate and grizzly murders. They soon realize they are dealing with a serial killer calling himself John Doe who is targeting people he thinks represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset befriends Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in the crime-riddled city. By using an illegal FBI trick of tracking certain public library book titles they find a likely suspect and enter an apartment building where they’re attacked by a gunman who just might be their target but there are two more sins to go …  Andrew Kevin Walker’s dense and sharply written script is given an astonishingly immersive workout by director David Fincher and it’s one of the key films of the Nineties. Into those rain-slicked NYC streets run two great movie policemen, the grizzled Freeman and the ambitious impatient young Pitt who take such a long time to get into each other’s working rhythm. And when they do, they’re chasing the man who’s really chasing them.  This is a brutal, violent work which raises torture to a kind of poetic, along the lines of John Doe’s literary inspirations, Dante and Thomas Aquinas. As he works through the various sins the sheer horror of the scenes still shocks. This wouldn’t be the last of Walker’s dark screenplays but in some ways he has never written anything as truly horrifying as the last scene shot in the bright outdoors in stark contrast to the claustrophobic interiors that characterise the sadism at the center of the narrative. There’s a subliminal cut which will make you think you’ve seen something you haven’t. Oh my gosh this is absolutely compelling. Even if his brain weren’t mush which it is he chewed off his tongue long ago.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

Red River (1948)

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Cherry was right. You’re soft, you should have let ’em kill me, ’cause I’m gonna kill you. I’ll catch up with ya. I don’t know when, but I’ll catch up. Every time you turn around, expect to see me, ’cause one time you’ll turn around and I’ll be there. I’m gonna kill ya, Matt.Headstrong Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) starts a thriving Texas cattle ranch with the help of his faithful trail hand, Groot (Walter Brennan), and his protégé, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), an orphan Dunson took under his wing when Matt was a boy when he was the only survivor of an Indian attack on a wagon train. In need of money following the Civil War and 14 years after starting the ranch, Dunson and Matt lead a cattle drive to Missouri, where they will get a better price for his 10,000 head than locally, but the crotchety older man and his willful young partner begin to butt heads on the exhausting journey… Famous as a collision of egos and acting styles (Wayne vs. Clift, who was making his first pilgrimage from the New York stage), Paul Fix (who plays Teeler Yacey), Borden Chase and Charles Schnee adapted the screenplay from Chase’s Saturday Evening Post story Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, a fictional account of the first cattle drive west. It was shot in 1946 but director Howard Hawks was unhappy with the edit and handed it to Christian Nyby who spent a year on it. He declared of Wayne, I didn’t know the son of a bitch could act! And it is an extraordinary Freudian story in its contrast portraits of masculinity, a brilliant exposition of father-son conflict and of the kind of family romance most people don’t understand in the mythical context of the conquest of the land of the Americas. Quite profound and a great action movie too. Co-directed by Arthur Rosson.

Isao Takahata 10/29/1935-04/05/2018

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The death has taken place of Isao Takahata, the co-founder of legendary Japanese anime Studio Ghibli. He was 82.  Probably most acclaimed for Grave of the Fireflies, he was instrumental in bringing the artform to a global audience. He began working in the field at the Toei Studio in 1959 and eventually teamed up with arch rival Hayao Miyazaki in 1985 to make hugely influential and serious-minded films like the ecological story Pom Poko. This multi-talented auteur was a writer, producer and director (but not an animator).  His tendency towards realism balanced Ghibli’s more fantasy-oriented material, focussing on the quotidian and normal activities, bringing his literary education to bear on the world of the comic book and elevating its ambitions in the process. Rest in peace.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

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My head’s been shrunk! Oh the horror! The horror! Anthropologist Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) believes that the men of his family have been cursed for generations by the native South American tribe he studies. Shortly after his brother, Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh), discovers one of the tribe’s shrunken heads in his house, he’s found murdered and his head goes missing. In pursuit of the tribesman Zutai (Paul Wexler) and a rival scientist (Henry Daniell) who has become a part of the tribe, Drake attempts to end the curse once and for all…  With career best performances by Franz and Daniell, this is a tremendously atmospheric exercise in genre which belies its impoverished production values. Charles Gemora created award-winning shrunken heads in addition to his duties as make-up artist in this parable concerning race relations and the impact of white men on the New World. Written by Orville H. Hampton and directed by the underrated and enigmatic yet prolific B director Edward L. Cahn, this rivals his early collaborations with screenwriter Tom Reed and may well be the best film ever made.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess. Like you said, Captain, maybe we do that, we all earn the right to go home.  Following the Normandy landings of June 1944 Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes his men of the 2nd Ranger battalion behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) a paratrooper whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Surrounded by the brutal realities of war, while searching for Ryan each man embarks upon a personal journey and discovers their own strength to triumph over an uncertain future with honor, decency and courage… Robert Rodat’s men on a mission script has the classic features of the WW2 combat movie – a selection of guys or types from all walks of life with their own business and point of view and declamatory lines. But the first thirty minutes constitute probably the best fighting scene ever put on film:  a literally visceral evocation of the beach landings with things you’ll wonder any man could have survived.  There are images that are seared on the brain. It’s a wholly immersive set up and utterly shocking, as real as you’ll ever want a war to be.  Then the film cannily shifts in tone, content and performance from sequence to sequence ranging from the subtle to the spectacular both in terms of visuals and narrative as the story hook about the military’s single survivor policy kicks in and has its ripple effect on this battalion of soldiers reluctantly tramping across France who seem like a proper cross-section of society:  Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel.  Spielberg said he wanted the kind of faces he saw in WW2 newsreels … and they work out their individual and collective issues under sniper fire and figure out what matters and try to keep going. The film has been lauded for its accuracy but some don’t like the dramatic coda.  That doesn’t matter. Hanks is brilliant as the heart and soul of the outfit. When he is on the verge of hysteria at the enveloping chaos and confusion we are on the edge of our seats, with him. The horrors of war are never hidden from the audience.  We get different perspectives – religious, personal, intellectual, about the rights and wrongs of bloody and vengeful action. It’s been a day of historical and war movies for me but I started out with Spielberg’s latest (Ready Player One) and I’ve concluded with this, one of the best WW2 films of them all, a stunning and perfectly judged achievement on every level because he is a director who can tell more in one frame than some directors can in entire scenes. Astonishing. MM#1700

Ready Player One (2018)

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People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.  In 2045, with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves a video in which he promises that his immense fortune will go to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest as his avatar Parzival, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger. He finds romance and a fellow rebel in Art3mis aka Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and they enter a business war led by tyrannical Nolan Sorrentino (Ben Mendelson) who used to make Halliday’s coffee and is now prepared to do anything to protect the company … Adapted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline from Cline’s cult novel, this blend of fanboy nostalgia with VR and gaming works on a lot of levels – and I say that as a non-gamer. There are a lot of things to like once you get accustomed to the fact that the vast majority of the narrative takes place in the virtual ie animated world yet it is embedded in an Eighties vista with some awesome art production and references that will give you a real thrill:  Zemeckis and Kubrick are just two of the cinematic gods that director Steven Spielberg pays homage in a junkyard future that will remind any Three Investigators reader of Jupiter Jones, only this time the kid’s got a screen.  This being a PC-VR production it’s multi-ethnic, multi-referential and cleverer-than-thou yet somehow there’s a warmth at its kinetically-jolting artificial centre that holds it together, beyond any movie or song or toy you might happen to have foist upon you. There are some of the director’s clear favourites in the cast – the inexplicable preference for Rylance and Simon Pegg (sheesh…) but, that apart, and delicious as some of this is – it looks like it really was made 30 years ago – you do have to wonder (and I say this as a mega fan), Will the real Steven Spielberg please stand up?! This is the real Easter Egg hunt.