Phantom Thread

phantom3Phantom Thread, like its protagonist, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), does not give up its secrets easily, always reserved and distant. In this way it seems the most Kubrickian film I have seen since, oh, the passing of Kubrick himself. It even rather feels like it has the presence of Kubrick, like a ghost, running through it. The film maintains its own pace, and like in Kubrick’s films, each shot has a tendency to linger a little too long, making each feel a little uncomfortable, and perhaps hinting at meanings that might not even be there. Also like in Kubrick films, tradition and ceremony seems to hold import- in Phantom Thread, this is mostly in breakfast, an absent routine for many turned here into almost precise ritual, an exercise in power and control.

The films art direction, too, is so finely curated it feels like another character. I suspect one could return to this film in five, ten, twenty years, and like each time one returns to Kubrick films, it will return something new, some new insight. It is evocative of an era that is as alien to us as the surface of the moon, and is intoxicating and infuriating, warm and cold. I loved it and hated it: so very Kubrick.

But this is not a Kubrick film, of course: this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film; I adored his early films, Hard 8, Boogie Nights, Magnolia but was disheartened by There Will Be Blood, feeling as if it had broken some spell, so painful a film that I only saw it once and dared never to return to it. Indeed, I haven’t seen a film by the director since- both The Master and Inherent Vice have been temptations I shied away from. As a film-buff, it felt like a broken love affair, and while sometimes tempted, it always felt wrong, going back.

phatom1Phantom Thread is set in postwar London, and the strange, frankly alien world of 1950s haute coutre, a tale of obsession and control and love that reminded me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (no small praise, as Vertigo is one of my very favourite films- will Phantom Thread prove as timeless?).  I expected a film about art and  fashion in the strange world of 1950s haute coutre, but it is actually a bizarre oedipal romance, a man haunted by his mother, trying to shape his muses to his whim and being finally undone by a muse that in turn shapes him to her own.

Or maybe I read it wrong. Maybe its a film about toxic masculinity, of a man in his 60s abusing his status and position, taking advantage of a young woman in her 20s (how sad that this feels so timely). Maybe its a film just about a man ruined by his mother, whose ghost literally appears before him, confirming his fancy that she is always watching him, perhaps always judging him. Maybe its an adult fairy-tale, of the Beast being undone by Beauty. Perhaps it will be a different film each time I see it. Phantom Thread is a complex web, a gorgeous film quite Out of Time, so unlike anything you usually see today. Indeed, how very Kubrick. I hope Paul Thomas Anderson would take that as praise.

Phantom Thread is currently showing on Netflix in the UK, and is of course available on DVD and Blu-ray. I suspect the 4K UHD is quite sublime.

True Detective Season Three

true detective 3aTrue Detective Season Three continues (following a lengthy post-season two hiatus) this anthology show, here with a rather dense structure spanning three seperate timelines. Indeed, the central mystery of this season (relating to the disappearance of two children, and the murder of at least one of them) is almost incidental to that central conceit of the passage of time and its effects on the characters, and its impact on memory and self. It turns the season into a fascinating puzzle spread across some thirty-five years and benefits strongly from an excellent central performance from Mahershala Ali as detective Wayne Hays, whose life seems forever caught up by the mystery concerning the Purcell children’s disappearance. Two investigations, the first in 1980 when the children are lost, and a further re-investigation in 1990, fail to satisfy Hays and in 2015, with dementia already unraveling his sense of identity as the memories of his life slip away, he anchors himself to the case like it’s some kind of mental life-belt, to try finally to make sense of the case and maintain his sense of self.

The season takes place over eight episodes and slips between the three timelines almost as if without reason and defintely without warning, Its certainly disorientating but cleverly draws you in, making you a participant in the story as you try to make sense with the characters, particularly the increasingly bewildered Hays. Its also very well handled, how it often transitions between timelines, and very reminiscent of the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of the transitions are poetically lyrical.

true detective 3bIn one episode, having tricked the driver of a mysterious car hanging around his home in 2015, Hays finds himself suddenly alone in the dark street, one solitary streetlamp above him in a world of inky black void. He sees a fire a short distance away, and walks towards it, finally coming to the backyard of his 1990 home. He sees his younger self, naked but for boxer shorts, standing at a trash bin in which he is burning some clothes. His younger self, alerted by the sound of his older 2015 self, turns around to face him but that old self is gone. Now alone, he scrutinises his burning clothes and his wife walks out into the yard, worried at what he is doing… and the scene continues in 1990. This kind of thing happens all the time, and we often don’t know if what we are seeing is what really happened or just what the 2015 Hays is recollecting, his point-of-view that of an unreliable narrator as his dementia takes hold: in one scene in 2015 he has a positive conversation with his old partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) about the old case, then goes to the toilet. When he returns a few minutes later he greets West as if he hasn’t seen him in years, totally forgetting the earlier conversation. If his mind is that hazy, just how unreliable are the old events we are seeing?

Ultimately, it almost doesn’t matter, because the case isn’t the twisted and dark shocker that fans of the first season, certainly, may have been hoping for. You can go to the well too often in attempts to shock and surprise (as demonstrated in the unravelling of Game of Thrones in its final seasons). It instead transpires that perhaps the real central concern of the season is the ties between freinds and family, and how their relationships are affected both by the case and the relentless march of Time. I’m sure it’s no mistake that the way Kubrick managed the fluid flow of time and ageing in 2001‘s strange eerie finale in the alien hotel room is replicated here so often. Its almost as if Hays is lost in Time himself, as much a witness and viewer as we are. It makes for a really interesting storyline and I really appreciated having mature characters as central protagonists and feeling the impact of the decades upon them.

true detective 3cThe sense of morbid dread and unease permeating through this season was almost tangible, intensified no end by a really disturbing soundtrack that was quite relentless and reminded me of some of Vangelis’ more experimental work back in his Nemo days (particularly, say, the bell-like clanging of metal tubes/scaffolding during the Bradbury building chase in Blade Runner, drenched in reverb). Certainly something got under my skin; during this past week of watching this season my sleep became increasingly uneven and I often found my daylight hours pondering what was happening in the most recently-watched episode and what might happen next.

In something of a minority, I was actually a fan of the shows second season, and I think across its three seasons it remains one of the better shows currently airing. Its title recalls the dime-store pulp novels lining the book carousels in stores of the 1960s and 1970s, their gaugy covers and dark, noirish stories, but doesn’t ever fall into the trap of, say, the rather more populist sensationalism of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction movie. True Detective’s protagonists are people caught in worlds they cannot control, caught up in events that overwhelm them. Its Lovecraft by way of Philip K Dick. I could watch this kind of stuff all day long and hope that the wait for a fourth season isn’t as long as it was for season three.

The Making of Alien by J.W.Rinzler

makingalienThis is a hell of a book. We’ve had some near-misses over the years (Alien Vault for one) as Alien continues to be hugely popular and generates such fascination to this day that every so often someone has felt like having a shot at it. Well, okay, the cynic in me suggests every so often people figure it’s time to make some more money out of the film, but as usual I digress. This time, they finally nailed it. God knows we’ve had so many books since the original Book of Alien, but this new book from J W Rinzler really is the definitive book about the movie. Its got all the old illustrations, pre-production paintings, storyboards etc that people will remember, and all sorts of new stuff too, imagery likely buried in boxes for all these decades. I haven’t finished reading the book yet but yeah, in the unlikely event that  somehow you weren’t aware of this book being out, you really should get a copy if you’re even remotely interested in the film.

With all respect to Paul M. Sammon’s Future Noir book, this is the kind of book I would absolutely love to see about the making of Blade Runner. Sure, Future Noir has more information than anyone other than a BR nut could ever want, but it lacks the glorious, elegant presentation of books like this. Especially as the film is such a gorgeous visual spectacle. Its a funny thing that we haven’t seen that Blade Runner making-of book yet, but as Rinzler’s own Planet of the Apes book celebrated that films fiftieth anniversary, what the hell, there’s plenty of time for it to yet happen.  There’s a rumour circulating that Rinzler is now working on a book on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which sounds absolutely fascinating.

Party like it’s 1989: Pet Sematary

pet1I saw Pet Sematary back in 1989 at the cinema, and while I enjoyed it the thing I took most from it was the films gorgeous, ghostly score by a then-new rising star among film composers, Elliot Goldenthal: the score was part-Poltergeist, part something else entirely, and was a big part of the film’s success for me. Strangely enough, I’ve never seen the film again since… which raises the question-  just how well does it hold up today?

Well, I must say it’s really rather mixed. Biggest issue for me (but possibly a bonus for others) is the fact that the screenplay was written by the books author, Stephen King. Now, what makes for a great, engrossing horror book is quite different to what makes a great, engrossing film- books and film are entirely different media and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other, in just the same way as some things that work in a Marvel comic just don’t in a Marvel movie. The Pet Sematary film would be just perfectly fine without Victor Pascow’s ghost, persistent ghoul that he is, dropping in with regular ghostly warnings, or daughter Ellie’s own warning nightmares- it’s all quite unnecessary and threatens to tip the film into parody (it’s just a pity Ellie didn’t warn daddy not to buy the house in the first place). In the book I’m sure it’s all harmless and part of the creepy fun (it’s been a long, long time since I read the novel- well before I saw the film*) but in the film it’s just a little too much on the nose, more subtlety would have been preferable to me and helped avoid the film tipping into the fantastic. Also, does Rachel really need the hokey subplot about her deformed sister Zelda and the guilt over her death complicating things even further? Fans of King likely differ from my opinion, feeling that the film is more authentic as a King film, but it reminds me of King’s disdain for Kubrick’s The Shining, which works brilliantly as a horror film in its own right but differs from King’s source novel. Kubrick knew what worked in film, and must have struggled with some of King’s material- the film has a life all its own, as it stands, but is not by any means Stephen King’s The Shining- its really Kubricks, and that’s how it should be.

Coming back to this film after near thirty years and being older (maybe wiser) I must say, I was surprised just how thoroughly nasty and unnerving Pet Sematary is. The central premise- childhood experience of death, mortality and the overwhelming parents grief from losing a child and the almost blasphemous, Frankenstein-like horror of bringing loved ones back from the dead- it’s quite heady stuff and genuinely unsettling. King’s excess in having scary dead sisters, friendly ghosts offering dire warnings and chummy old men with dark secrets they just can’t keep to themselves just threatens to overload what should be a chilling and very personal horror. Its a relentlessly morbid film, for all its faults, and as far as horror films go, I find that oddly rewarding.

What really doesn’t help the film is some of the casting- both Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby, pretty as they are, are pretty dire, hopelessly wooden and not helped by sharing a shocking lack of chemistry while they try to carry off some of King’s dialogue and plot twists. Its almost hilarious how they are completely out-acted by then-two year old child actor Miko Hughes as their unfortunate son, Cage. He’s cute, charming and natural in ways that Midkiff and Crosby simply aren’t. To be fair to them, they would likely have benefitted without the film’s insistence of them having ghostly visitors and guilty childhood baggage.

Pet Sematary reminds me that Stephen King’s work exists in a world all of its own- hugely popular as his books may be, most of the time the situations and characters have no similarities to how real people would behave. I guess he can get away with it in books but in film, I really think he’s pushing it, and that’s where this film suffers for me. Sure, have a young family suffer a terrible tragedy and yes, let the grief and terror push them into trying to beat death and nature to a horrible end, but don’t chuck in the horror equivalents of the kitchen sink regards ghosts and nightmares and deformed sisters etc. In just the same ways as dead is sometimes better, so less is often more.

*I was a huge fan of King’s books back in the day, but over the years his prolific nature (and lack of a decent editor) meant I simply couldn’t keep up, and haven’t read much of his work for some years.

Interstellar (2014)

inter2I’m not quite sure what to make of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. On the one hand its a bold, intelligent and epic movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe, and on the other hand, its an incredibly flawed, dumbed-down and infuriating movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe. How can it be both things at once? I saw the film in Imax (if you see the film, it HAS to be in Imax) last Tuesday and have refrained from writing this post, preferring instead to consider the film for awhile, discussing the film with colleagues at work who I saw the film with. Over the past few days I’ve started to reflect more on what the film does well than its flaws, but I’m still worried this post will swiftly degenerate into a confusing morass of conflicting thoughts…. its that kind of movie.

Its certainly no masterpiece though. Its a good film in many ways, but anyone going to see this expecting something as important and profound as 2001: A Space Odyssey is going to be disappointed.  Sets your sights more towards 2010: The Year We Make Contact or perhaps even Sunshine and you’ll be happier with it. If that sounds like a damning comment then there it is. The one thing I will say in its favour is that they simply don’t make many films with space exploration  as a serious subject so we should cherish Interstellar for all its flaws- we simply are not going to see another science fiction film like this again for some years to come. That makes its flaws all the more frustrating, obviously…

What annoyed me most about Interstellar? For all its touted vision, all the huge effects and scope and acting talent, what this film lacks is a commentary, a voice of its own. Its bloodless. For me one of the most interesting parts of the film is its first act, on the blighted near-future Earth and a humanity that is facing a long, slow extinction. Text-books are rewriting history (the Apollo landings were faked, claimed to be a successful ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union), farming is the only thing that matters, there are no armies, no space programmes… but nowhere does the film state a reason for this End of the World scenario. Climate change? Global Warming? Rampant population growth? Is the film so afraid to be outspoken, afraid to alienate viewers by being political? With a premise like this , the film should be pissing people off, if only the current political establishments of this planet. Maybe it should be pissing all of us off, blaming us and our way of life for the blight. Have we killed the Earth? If so, do we even deserve to survive? The question isn’t even asked, as if believing that humanity is some innocent victim itself. There is an extinction event going on, God knows how many species already wiped out by the time the film begins, but no explanation offered, no reason or blame for it. We are meant to just accept it somehow. Its the reason for the odyssey that follows, and that’s all. The central premise of the film is stated as ‘Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here‘. It doesn’t ask why. Why are we not meant to die here, considering its us that fucked it up? The film should be asking do we deserve to survive, and the rest of the film demonstrating the answer.

inter3Doubly troubling is that everything is American-centric, a throwback to films decades past. There’s an irony that if its the free-capitalism and mass-consumption of the Western way of life that has destroyed the planet, its only the Americans that can save it. There’s no Big Picture here, despite the films huge subject. Beyond the rural land of Cooper’s farm, or the rather ridiculous subterranean hide-out of NASA, the big world picture is ignored. Bear in mind that as I write this in 2014, America and NASA cannot even get a man into orbit any more, in light of which the basic premise of the film (forget the Rest Of The World, America Can Save Everything) is insulting, frankly, in something that’s supposed to be so intelligent. Its more Armageddon than Contact, something I found quite surprising.

Some sequences are indeed jaw-dropping pure cinema, as one would expect of a director of Nolan’s credentials. When Cooper finally leaves home to pilot the mission to the stars, he leaves behind his young daughter begging him to stay. The music swells up powerfully, he drives off into the horizon, and as the music lifts up even more the picture cuts to the launch of the rocket, the magnificently bombastic Zimmer score propelling, simply willing the rocket into orbit. Its huge, exhilarating stuff, worth the price of admission alone. Indeed this may well be Zimmer’s finest score in years (it’s up there with The Thin Red Line in my eyes). But goodness is it loud. It drowns out so much of the dialogue some of these plot-points I’m moaning about may indeed have been addressed in the film, I perhaps simply missed it in all the noise. The sound design of this movie is problematic to say the least. It seems to be by design, but if so then I’m not sure it worked to the film-maker’s intentions.

inter1
So once we get into space, and all the promised spectacle of a blockbuster movie, its surprising how mundane it all seems. Have we lost our propensity for awe? Its troubling that Interstellar lacks the sense of wonder or spectacle that the Birth of the Solar System sequence of The Tree Of Life had, or so much of Gravity had (indeed, much of the film looks spectacular but Gravity remains visually superior, and it must really irk Nolan that it beat him to it). Going further back, Kubrick’s 2001 had such a grace in its scale, a sense of the vastness of space, our place in it: the Discovery a dot in the vast blackness of the 70mm frame, and then the humans in turn dwarfed by the construct carrying them. Nolan deliberately avoids hero-shots of the ships, perhaps to maintain an intimacy, or docudrama approach, but this hurts the films sense of scale and majesty. Originally Steven Spielberg was lined up to direct this film, if he had, I don’t think the film would have suffered this particular failing.

Nolan seems so distracted by time dilation and the years separating Cooper and his family back on Earth that the sheer physicality of space travel, the distances and the zero-gravity, food and air supplies, don’t seem to interest him. Even a film as derided as Sunshine had a greenhouse on its ship and a concious concern with supplies and survival. Interstellar is in such a rush to get to the wormhole it treats the odyssey to reach it (the wormhole orbits way out at Saturn)  as something ordinary, like a regular outing. We don’t have time, funnily enough in a three-hour movie, to really get a sense of the ship they are travelling in, establish its internal and external spaces, its functions. The crew leave Earth orbit, jump into cryosleep and wake up at Saturn minutes later. Sure, it moves the film forward but it loses so much grandeur and sense of awe, and once through the wormhole and we reach the Other Side, this sense of the ordinary continues, the prospective planets all (apparently) fairly close to each other, the astronauts tripping between them like in some kind of Star Wars movie. It’s necessary to keep the running time down, but it really diminishes the scale, which is odd, because this film is close on three hours long, and if that’s not long enough to maintain a proper sense of scale in a space movie, then are you doing it wrong? If sub-plots are forcing your hand condensing it all into three-hours, should it even be there?

Its as if they shot two three-hour movies and cut it down to one. Sort of like making a Peter Jackson movie in reverse.

I have endeavoured to keep as much of this spoiler-free as I can. People who have seen the film will have noted that I haven’t even raised certain elements of the film up. Derisive as I may already seem, I haven’t yet brought up a number of elements of the film that are really contentious. Bookcases and coordinates and surprise actors, rather problematic robot designs…  I’ll leave that for another day, perhaps when the Blu-ray comes out.

Suffice to say that while people still argue about what 2001 means, there’s no such argument regards Interstellar– its love conquers all. Yes, I’m afraid its about as high-concept as that. Which is not to say that its a bad movie, its just a frustrating one. Not quite worthy of all its ambitions. This post makes it seem as if I hated the film. I really quite liked it. I look forward to seeing it again. It just isn’t what we had hoped it would be, what it really should have been- a really great space movie. Nearly there, I guess.

Well, we’ll always have 2001...

 

Gravity (2013) Imax 3D

gravity-movie-posterYeah, you read that right; Ghost has been back out to the movies, and a film in 3D at that. That sound you hear is the world halting on its axis and Hell freezing over. Well, I guess if I was going to succumb to the evils of 3D after all these many months of avoiding it, it would have to be because of something special. That’s what GRAVITY is; something special. But is it a movie? Even when watching it I had the impression I was less watching a movie, more experiencing an event. If GRAVITY has any shortcomings then they are clearly in the more traditional movie arena, things like plot, characterisation… but such things hardly matter when the damn thing looks and sounds so utterly overwhelming, particularly in Imax. If I ever watch any 3D movie ever again, I’ll be sure to make certain it’s on Imax.

Oddly enough, criticising GRAVITY for not having a truly great plot or characterisation seems almost redundant. In that respect, its much like that granddaddy of sci-fi films… and I’m not talking AVATAR.

GRAVITY may be the nearest thing to our generation’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I guess that might seem like just so much hyperbole but I think its a valid comparison. Kubrick himself, I think, when talking about 2001 described the medium itself as the message, if any, of the film. It was Pure Cinema. Conventional film-making techniques, such as narrative, plot, characterisation, dialogue, were left behind by Kubrick. 2001 was an experience to be see, to be heard…  and GRAVITY is like that. Its a sensory overload.  The story is perfunctory, almost incidental.  The genius about GRAVITY is that while so many blockbusters are huge entertaining thrill-rides that are ultimately as un-fulfilling as the popcorn being chomped on by the audience, this one has something of a soul and intelligence to it nonetheless. But regardless, its utterly beautiful. Every single shot is utterly convincing and a work of art. Its like magic, almost. Hell, make the Blu-ray barebones guys, I have no interest in any commentary or making-of featurettes, just leave the illusion, the magic there.   The film is that good.

???????So yeah, comparisons to 2001 are inevitable, even beyond the similar subject matter. 2001 has many meanings to many people. It can have a different meaning each time you see it. Its the ‘true’ history of man, from Ape to Starchild. Its how inhuman and souless that the future of artificial orbiting worlds and moonbases and AI makes us.  Its how utterly unknowable true Alien Intelligence will be. How small is our place in the Cosmos. How boring and mundane Space travel might actually be. That perhaps we should be careful not to lose our humanity as we leave the Earth. 2001 can be all that, and none of them.

GRAVITY isn’t really that profound, or trying to be, I suspect, and me making such comparisons between them is likely unfair to GRAVITY.  GRAVITY’s meanings… well, I’ll leave that to the inevitable multiple viewings ahead on Blu-ray next year. Maybe its just about how deadly and strange space really is. Maybe its just about the grieving process, of letting go, of Rebirth. I think I’ll keep this Spoiler-free so won’t dwell on any of this too much, but if you haven’t yet seen the film, skip this paragraph completely, but… well, here’s the thing that’s been bugging me:  does what we think we see in the film in its latter stages really even happen? There’s a moment late in the film, something happens, and, well, I really thought that the film had imploded, Jumped The Shark. Anyone who has seen the film knows what I’m on about.  Its clearly something unreal, a vision even, or visitation, but even when everything apparently returns to ‘normal’. I have to ask- I had my doubts even when watching it, but I haven’t seen or heard anybody else pick up on it;  what are we watching, towards the end?  Are we back on Earth at the end, or in Heaven? Maybe its all literally happening as we see it, but I’m not so sure. I half-expected to see a little girl standing, waiting on the shore-line at the end of that final shot.

But anyway, if this film doesn’t clean up all the technical Academy Awards then the Oscars is even more redundant than I had thought. And here’s the strangest, craziest thing of all, that I’ll leave you to ponder with even as I am shocked to realise I’m writing this- Sandra Bullock here deserves a nomination at least. If she won Best Actress I wouldn’t mind at all. She’s that good. There. I’ve said it, and my reputation flounders in that statements wake. But she is very good, and yes the film really is that good. Film of the year.

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