Phantom Thread

Phantom

Is there a worse line in the history of cinema than “Kiss me before I’m sick”? Probably plenty of contenders but I think this probably edges it, especially when you actually hear the line in context in this forgettable movie.
 
Such a shame that the much heralded final film of Daniel Day Lewis should be a shallow, vacuous movie about people I don’t care about by writer/director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson has form on this front in the shape of Boogie Nights but it seems a shame for this great actor to bow out in such a way. If you’re going to retire relatively early from acting then you feel it should be with a truly momentous movie and performance. This isn’t it.
 
It’s an odd role for a final film in that it doesn’t really say much, doesn’t require a virtuoso performance. He just fades away from the screen with a rather subdued effort in a film that is nice to look at but never as engaging as it seems to think it should be. That’s not to say that it’s a disaster of a film or even particularly bad in any of the usual key areas. The acting is totally fine with Vicky Krieps, a Luxembourger making her first English language appearance, sparkling on the screen and Lesley Manville providing good support. The film looks sumptuous and is rich in period detail. But it’s ultimately Anderson’s script where it all falls down – increasingly so towards the end.
 
Day Lewis plays Reynolds (christian name – it’s that kind of movie) who is a dressmaker to the upper echelons of high society, the aristocracy and the royal houses of Europe. He coldly drops his romantic interest in the opening scenes of the movie and heads to the country where he bumps into a waitress by the name of Alma and the two instantly spark off with each other in a way which is ludicrously unbelievable. Nevertheless, Reynolds takes her on as his new top model and live-in love interest in the enormous townhouse he occupies with his cold fish sister, Cyril.
 
Essentially, the movie is then a story of control of different kinds. Reynolds is a driven man, utterly dedicated to his art, completely intolerant of any distraction with his sister managing his life to allow him the freedom to devote his energies to his talents. Alma soon finds out that even buttering toast too loudly in his presence can spark scenes of anger as does bringing tea to him unannounced. If he was a real-life person he would be instantly diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as any small deflection from his normal routine sends him into either anger, despair or both. Although there was much press that the film perhaps tipped over into misogyny and Krieps was interviewed about why she would take part in a movie that was about controlling women that’s not a stick I can use against it.
 
For starters, for anyone who has seen the movie it’s abundantly clear that the character of Reynolds isn’t really controlling Alma at all, it’s simply that he very obviously has a disorder and can’t accept anything outside his routine. Secondly, the third act of the film sees Alma turn the tables on Reynolds. Not just along the OCD lines he displays but in a thoroughly psychopathic manner, putting his life in danger just so she can control him and even at times torture him through his dislike of louds noises. It’s hard to imagine how anyone who has seen the movie could level the criticisms of male control unless they walked out of the cinema well before the end.
 
It’s this final third of the movie where it goes off the rails. Having progressed at a pace akin to a snail hitching a ride on a glacier it then crams too much into the end and the relationship becomes simply too bonkers to believe in for a second longer. When you hear the line at the top of this review spoken in context you don’t know whether to laugh out loud, throw something at the screen or pity poor Daniel Day Lewis for having to speak it.
 
It’s the dialogue above all else where Anderson really fails. The clipped, emotionally stunted upper middle class Englishness of it all is bad enough but characters often speak as if some of the lines have been cut out, trading philosophical musings with lots of silences in a way in which not one person in the real world has ever once spoken. I was reminded throughout of the dreary television plays of Stephen Poliakoff, the all time benchmark in inaccessible characters speaking in riddles or musing on the nature of humanity in every single line in dramas where nothing ever happens and which seem to be aimed only at half a dozen critics in the quality newspapers at the exclusion of the rest of the viewing public. Anderson seems to have taken this template and turned it into a movie to try and win Oscars with. A very well made movie, but one which has you looking at your watch and boggling at its lunatic conclusion.
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Mary Magdalene

Will there be a duller movie this year (or ever?) than Mary Magdalene. Hard to imagine. Please let me know if there is – but don’t show it to me in case I die of boredom. Cinema can really inspire and be a very lifting experience. Sometimes, like today, I left feeling I’d wasted two hours of my life.

The idea of making Mary of Magdala the main focus of the Jesus story is perfectly fine. Ever since a sixth century Pope announced (wrongly) that she had been a prostitute she’s a character who has been misrepresented. Resetting her story is worthy of a movie but I wish it hadn’t been this one.

Director Garth Davis gives us a version of the biblical landscape unlike many well remembered blockbusters of yesteryear where colours were bright and costumes (even for the poor) seemed rather expensive and fine. Just as the depiction of the middle ages as a time of bright green tights and finery was reset by Monty Python’s Holy Grail as grim and dirty so was the biblical story by Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Therefore, there’s no real problem with the ultra realistic look favoured here by director Garth Davis – it’s been around for a while.

However, it’s not just the authenticity but the general look and tone of the movie that are unremittingly bleak and miserable. Yes, life was hard for those living in those lands under Roman rule scraping an existence among the rocky landscapes, but there’s never any variance in tone at all. From the washed out tones of the cinematography across windswept locations to the muted performances it’s just all so desolate and dreary.

Worst of all is Joaquin Phoenix as a rather old looking and distinctly uncharismatic Jesus. Quite what his followers see in him is difficult to work out given that he turns up at towns, mumbles quietly in a croaky voice a few Thoughts of the Day and then people seem to join him for no good reason. There’s underplaying a role and then there’s this – taking some speeches which have survived through the ages and making them sound like someone reading out a shopping list down the phone.

As for Mary herself, we’re on better ground here with Rooney Mara who sparkles in front of the camera despite having almost nothing to work with. Davis clearly has decided that close ups of her eyes and very slowly forming half-smiles breaking out on her face should be the focus and Mara delivers a decent enough performance but her actual character becomes increasingly annoying as the movie progresses. In the attempt to redress some balance between Mary and the other disciples the screenplay goes insanely too far the other way. Throughout the film every decision made by a male disciple is wrong, every thought they voice is wrong, every action demonstrably wrong. Whereas every single thing Mary thinks, says, does is shown to be thoughtful and right. Her character is so perfect that she’s entirely predictable and tiresome and halfway through the movie you know that it’s going to be that way right until the final frame. Which it is. Ludicrously so by the end.

The brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor is wasted as Peter who is scripted as a bit of a misguided fool and it’s only really Tahar Rahim who truly shines as Judas who is given a very sympathetic hearing, backstory and believable justification for the betrayal. In fact, I kept thinking that I was watching a movie about this even more maligned character who at least underwent a cinematic journey, unlike Mary who was unchanging throughout.

All in all, it’s a story which ultimately isn’t worth the telling in this film. The Bible may well be pure myth but it still has some great stories in it. To take those tales and fashion them into something so utterly empty and tedious really is difficult to achieve. And that’s Garth Davis’ only real accomplishment here.

Rating: 3/10

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Lady Bird

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s coming of age movie is a gently amusing journey with its heart in all the right places. It probably doesn’t really go anywhere in the end and never seems to set its ambitions too high but it’s an entertaining hour and a half in the cinema and always pleasant company.

To be honest, it would probably have amounted to a lot less if it wasn’t for a wonderful performance by Saoirse Ronan who really carries this along as the titular lead (the character rejects her birth name of Christine and calls herself Lady Bird) and is always the driving force. She’s so likeable as a square peg in the round hole of a Catholic girls’ school dreaming of East Coast college and a new life that you can’t help but want things to go her way. She’s ably backed up by Laurie Metcalf as her domineering mother and their complicated relationship is the central plank of the proceedings. Tracy Letts has a nice underplayed role as her father and Beanie Feldstein is lovable as her best friend as Lady Bird negotiates boyfriends, authority and her family’s financial woes on her way to her goals.

The film probably works best of all when it plays it for laughs and there’s a hilarious scene when the school sports master takes over as the new drama producer. As already said though, ultimately it’s very slight by the end and I’m scratching my head as to why it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (although, having said that, the prize was ultimately won by a movie unfit to feed this one into the projector). Nevertheless, you won’t feel cheated handing over your money for this heartwarming tale and it’s all about Saoirse Ronan. She’ll be seen again soon in the movie of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and I’ll definitely be watching.

Rating: 7/10

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Black Panther

Panther

It would probably shock some people who know me to discover that I don’t normally like superhero movies, despite being a comics fan. However, I really enjoyed this one and it felt like a breath of fresh air in a genre which is all too often overblown and ridiculous.

A lot of superhero films fall at the first hurdle for me with casting and scripting that is either broody and boring or arrogant and aloof or just annoyingly wise cracking. I can’t imagine I’d less want to watch than Deadpool, for instance, with its punchable central character grinding out endless quips and one liners like a non-stop machinegun. No fears on this front here though as Chadwick Boseman presents a likeable hero who has inherited the mantle of king of his people. The humour when it appears is gentle enough and Boseman always illicits my sympathy throughout. He’s ably backed up by Michael B Jordan as the villain of the piece and the wonderful Lupita Nyong’o as his complicated ex.

Of course, this is an important superhero film in that it features an almost exclusively black cast – something Hollywood probably had the jitters about putting before a paying public. Things are changing however and the recent Wonder Woman shows that audiences want something a little bit more from these blockbusters now and a little bit more diverse than what we’ve been fed in the past. Marvel’s Luke Cage has paved the way on Netflix with a similarly all-black cast and it was time for cinema to take the plunge. The fact that this is one of Marvel’s most successful films to date indicates – thankfully – that the target audience no longer cares about colour, they just want a good movie. And this is one.

It’s a great decision to make all the actors speak with an African accent. Of course, the fictional kingdom which is the setting for most of the movie is in Africa but thankfully the cast don’t use Western accents. This is a movie which celebrates African culture and the beautiful scenes during the tribal traditions early in the movie are awash with splendid colours but it’s also great to see the futuristic science of the kingdom of Wakanda displaying what an African metropolis might have looked like without Western influences.

It’s a fairly straight story centring around the Black Panther’s right to rule his kingdom but it bravely asks important moral questions like should the kingdom share their technology with the rest of Africa or keep their Utopian landscape to themselves. In the context of the film the answers aren’t simple.

The only real wrong step in the film is the casting of Martin Freeman as an American CIA agent. Before he even opens his mouth you can’t believe for a second that he’s American, let alone CIA. Every time he speaks you just can’t imagine that the voice matches his lost Englishman face. That aside though, it’s a simple tale well told and immensely refreshing to have a different cultural angle on the superhero tale.

Rating: 8/10

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The Shape of Water

Shape

Hmmmmm. I’d been looking forward to this one quite a bit but came away immensely disappointed. I suspect I’m probably in a minority as I’ve seen nothing but universal praise for it but I felt it failed on all sorts of levels.

What had drawn me to it was the look and feel as I love films with slightly retro visions of the modern day or the future by brave and individual directors. See Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. This immediately scored minus points for me when I realised it was just set in the early 60s in our own reality rather than some strange vision of the future which would have worked a lot better. Nevertheless, the similarity to the look of a Jeunet film is overpowering and one scene in particular leaps out as a direct lift from Delicatessan. Dan Laustsen does a wonderful job with the cinematography which is rich with dark greens and browns and mustard yellows but even that just seems like pure homage to the work of Darius Khondji on Jeunet and Caro’s films.

Sally Hawkins is undoubtedly fantastic as the mute lead communicating only through sign language and the range of her expressions and deserves her nominations without a doubt. She’s ably backed up by Richard Jenkins as an equally tragic outcast in society but there’s a sadly one dimensional comic-book-simple bad guy performance by Michael Shannon as the head of the research centre torturing the amphibian creature. There’s also a sense that characters all have their colours nailed to the mast from very early into the feature and you suspect that nothing will surprise you from that point onwards.

The central premise that a mute cleaning lady could strike up a relationship with a chained amphibious creature and wishes to free it is a good one but to make the relationship almost instantly a romantic one, and very quickly a sexual one, is just so ludicrous that it becomes increasingly hard to buy into the film at all. In the end, events rush towards a remarkably predictable outcome. Even when you step right inside the denouement the final twists are so obvious that you can shout them up at the screen before they happen.

In all, I felt let down by a film which had a number of plot holes and which ended up going in exactly the direction I anticipated (something a movie should never do) and which never really raised itself above its visual strengths. There are some good performances but some very one-note performances and a sense of unoriginality that is remarkable in a film being heralded as original.

With regard to the latter, Jeunet himself has confronted Guillermo del Toro about lifting the scene from Delicatessan to which del Torro merely remarked that they were both of them indebted to Gilliam. Not a good enough answer, Guillermo. As to the screenplay, there are very strong insinuations that the entire central premise is lifted from a play by Paul Zindel in 1959 and which was then adapted for TV. The list of similarities are breathtaking including both the premise and actual scenes. To explain this off as coincidence doesn’t seem like a strong argument. For that reason I’ll be hoping that it most definitely doesn’t pick up Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. All in all, looking nice doesn’t make for a great movie.

Rating: 4/10

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards

Believe all the plaudits you’ve read as this is the kind of movie which makes you appreciate the wonder of cinema for its whole duration and on every bend of its magnificent journey.

There’s not a great deal more I can add to the praise and awards deservedly showered on Frances McDormand but this is much, much more than the tour de force she gives us. She is fantastically believable though as the frustrated mother of a young girl who has been raped and murdered with the police investigation petering out having found no leads to the perpetrators. However, the entire ensemble cast is simply magnificent.

Sam Rockwell has been getting lots of critical praise also and it’s well earned as he takes what seems like a very one dimensional character for most of the movie down more interesting paths by the story’s end. However, there hasn’t been enough said about Woody Harrelson as the police chief, a man of many faults, some of them repellent, but also a complicated figure with some recommending human features.

It’s this humanising of characters who are very flawed and who hold racist and homophobic viewpoints which has drawn some criticism of the movie but the movie gets it absolutely right as far as I’m concerned. I prefer to see films populated by real-life characters and not people wearing white hats and black hats to represent good and bad as in early cowboy films. The shades of grey on show here are so much more engaging and it’s a much braver choice by director, Martin McDonagh. Even our main focus – the character portrayed by Frances McDormand – is someone who isn’t entirely good. She has viewpoints which are unreasonable and takes actions which can’t be justified on any level.

The use of some overt humour at times in what is otherwise a rather bleak tale has mystified some – and I can understand that – but, for me, it works. There is always humour even in the darker moments of life and I felt it helped to add another level of humanity. Add to this the fact the film doesn’t wrap its solutions or outcomes up nicely in a bow by the end and you get another layer of reality. All too often we view films where we don’t believe the characters have any existence beyond the confines of the screen as their backstory is neatly displayed and their story has concluded by the end. By leaving openings and not drawing down the curtain in totality we get to view these characters as if we’re seeing through a window into their lives. There’s a sense that they existed beforehand and will go on existing afterwards. That’s always the best way to leave a movie – wondering what the characters will be doing next and trying to work it out for yourself.

This is a story bravely told with many delightful bends and turns taking you in new directions and it might be the best thing I see this year.

Rating: 9/10

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Murder on the Orient Express

Murder Orient

I missed out on this one at Christmas so was happy to snap up a morning screening for old people! Although I guess Christmas is pretty much the right time to be watching this, not only because of the snowy landscapes on the train journey, but because it’s the kind of thing you gathered together as a family to watch over the holidays in days gone by. In fact, it is pretty much exactly what you would expect it to be – two hours of period drama whodunnit hokum.

There are many flaws with the film but I found them mostly forgivable, mainly because Branagh himself is engaging as Poirot and delivers a version of the famous Belgian sufficiently removed from the other well known representations of him to make it feel interesting. The supporting cast meanwhile is the sort of impossible wishlist that only ever seems to assemble for big ensemble productions of Christie or Dickens and everyone is reasonable enough without delivering anything outstanding. However, two of the characters (I’ll not say which) disappear so thoroughly from most of the proceedings that I’d actually forgotten they were even on the train leading me to strongly suspect some of their scenes ended up on the editing floor.

Some of the deductions made by Poirot, in the context of the movie, are truly impossible and rank as nothing more than fanciful guesswork but, then again, I’ve been reading all the Christie books in order over the last few years and that’s a trait of the books as well. In the short stories especially he seems to just come up with an instant hunch and then declare it as the solution so any faults in the character of Poirot or in his style of deduction can be traced all the way back to Christie herself and aren’t necessarily a failing of the film.

The other indulgence – which definitely does score a few minus points – is the derailing of the train with lots of scenes played outside in the snow for no good reason. In fact, there are many reasons why the characters wouldn’t want to go out in the snow, chief among them being that it would be so cold! Worst of these though is the final reveal where Poirot brings the suspects together who are ludicrously lined up along a series of tables in a tunnel in a scene which is presumably meant to ape The Last Supper. It’s nonsensical.

However, what you expect is what you get – a sumptuous period piece, good cast, a likeable Poirot and a bit of fun with a few nice directorial flourishes from Branagh. I think something better could have been achieved with the source material but it’s still something that will get a few viewer-friendly outings on TV at Christmastime for years to come.

Rating: 7/10

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