Oscars 2018 – The Post and Phantom Thread

Posted on February 16th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post almost looks like a spoof Oscar-garnering machine. Beloved actors working together for the first time, a true story about noble crusaders standing up against the powerful elite, an expert director and plenty of hype from a long way off. But when it actually arrived, it seemed to have run out of puff a little. In practice it only ended up with two nominations – Best Picture and Best Actress for Meryl Streep.

And I entered the cinema with a slight sense of obligation. Sure, I know Spielberg will marshal the material with grace and elan; Hanks and Streep are never less than watchable; and I wasn’t overly-familiar with the story. But honestly, with the classic All The President’s Men showing us The Washington Post taking on Nixon already, and the very recent, Best Picture winning Spotlight giving us a more modern take on the brave reporters uncover the truth story, I couldn’t help wondering whether there was any real need for The Post?

The story is very simple. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg smuggles out classified reports on the doomed Vietnam War and the New York Times begins to run them but is halted by a court injunction. When copies find their way to the Washington Post, editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham have to decide whether to risk their newly public company by following suit. And that’s it! That’s the whole story. So this is a film about process, and a film about character.

Spielberg’s ability with shots and editing is unrivalled, of course, but it’s his ability to deploy all of the resources of a filmmaker’s arsenal to deliver story which really sets him apart. I’ve recently noted the care with which he sets up Lincoln’s need to pass a constitutional amendment, and his 2015 film Bridge of Spies is another example of his immense skill and care. So, if anyone is going to tell this story, it’s this filmmaker.

What lets the script down a bit is the relentless determination to make it relevant. The parallels between the Nixon administration’s attempt to win the public debate by using the courts to silence dissenting voices are obvious, but that doesn’t stop the film from reminding us again and again and again that Trump is behaving in a very similar way. But at its heart, this is a film about characters, and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer create moments for even the smallest parts, which is partly why the roster of talent continues way past the marquee names. Take a bow Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Michael Stuhlbarg and more besides.

Hanks, of course, is tremendous, delivering a straight-arrow part with straight-arrow charisma. But – perhaps predictably – it’s Meryl Streep’s movie. The portrait of a publishing heiress with the guts to risk it all could have been movie-of-the-week tepid triumph, but Streep invests her with such tremendous vulnerability – even when she’s in the very process of standing up to her army of advisors – that it becomes a uniquely fascinating take on a woman in whom multiple clashing forces are chaotically fighting it out. Sadly, for Streep, Frances McDormand is in the race too, but with three acting Oscars and an unprecedented 21 nominations, I think Streep will be able to bear not winning this one.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is much more complex and unapproachable. In what is being touted as his final film, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the gloriously-named Reynolds Woodcock, fifties dressmaker to London’s great and good. With his severe sister (Leslie Manville – magnetic) as his second-in-command, the tetchy, fussy genius of couture continues to command his army of seamstresses and turn out stunning ball gowns and wedding dresses.

Into this controlled and controlling world comes Vicky Krieps as Alma Elson and a very strange and twisted battle of wills ensues. If The Post’s storyline is simple, Phantom Thread’s is positively anaemic. Much of the running-time resembles a series of short films, some of which are delightful, some of which are less diverting, some are just a bit frustrating. When Alma, ignoring all advice, tries to disrupt Woodcock’s routine by making him a private romantic dinner, she displays so little understanding of his character, and he displays so little sympathy for her feelings, that it’s hard not to feel entirely fed up with both of them, and it’s very hard to remain invested in the future of their romantic relationship.

When the real nature of their relationship is finally revealed, it’s undeniably arresting and original, and does draw various thematic threads together (sorry) but it’s also faintly ridiculous, with a whiff of off-brand Roald Dahl. And what’s also a peculiar choice is that the film opens with the casual dismissal of the previous girlfriend. This sets Alma up as merely the latest in a series of women, which should make Alma’s refusal to go away much more of a threat to Manville’s Cyril. But in fact, Manville plays almost no part in the final act of the film.

So, it’s also a little hard to understand, particularly in light of the dinner scene above, just what Alma is getting out of the relationship, and also how she is able to see into Woodcock’s soul.

I suspect, more than anything, this is a question of taste. I saw this film with two others one of who adored it and one of whom couldn’t wait for it to end. That leaves me somewhere in the middle. The performances, especially the three leads, are absolutely excellent, and director Anderson makes the most of the locations and wintery London scenes. It’s undeniably original and richly realised, but I think fundamentally I didn’t enjoy being in the company of these people and I began to lose interest in the horrible things they chose to do to each other.

Two films left to go, and to hear my thoughts on Oscar-winners past, do check out my new podcast Best Pick, wherein John Dorney, Jessica Regan and I are watching and reviewing every Academy Award Best Picture winner in no particular order.

 

Oscars 2018 – Darkest Hour and Three Billboards

Posted on January 31st, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Here we are again. As well as podcasting about the Oscars, I intend to continue blogging about them, so here are the runners and riders for the 90th Academy Awards…

Call Me By Your Namereviewed here. Moving drama with incredible performances and not quite enough story to sustain the length.

Darkest Hour – enjoyable history lesson with some ghastly lapses, held together by a wonderful central performance. Full review below.

Dunkirk – often very effective outing for Nolan’s rigorous style and not overlong, but not all sequences are equally effective

Get Out – stunning achievement, marrying black comedy, horror and social commentary in a brilliantly controlled manner.

Lady Bird – have yet to see, but looks great

Phantom Thread – have yet to see, and I don’t always enjoy Paul Thomas Anderson’s stuff, so I’m anxious

The Post – have yet to see, and worry that it is inessential

The Shape of Water – have yet to see, but it looks amazing

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – marvellous, meditative drama, which always kept me guessing. Full review below

Darkest Hour

Where would the Academy Awards be without a biopic of a famous historical character, played by a beloved character actor, labouring under mounds of latex? Some years we get several, this year Joe Wright and Gary Oldman provide the only one (unless you count The Post) although not the only film about Dunkirk.

To begin with, Oldman is amazing, with the aforementioned mound of latex applied gingerly and not too roughly, so that – while the resemblance is sometimes absolutely total – Oldman’s interpretation of the role is allowed to shine through. He completely inhabits the character – flaws, ideals, strengths, lapses and doubts – and never dips into caricature. Overall, I think his performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is probably finer (who else would dare go toe-to-toe with Alec Guinness) but this is the kind of expert showboating that the Academy loves and it’s hugely satisfying and fun to watch.

Director Joe Wright surrounds Oldman with an impressive roster of supporting actors too, from Kristin Scott-Thomas who eagerly laps up what tiny crumbs the script gives her and manages to sketch in something resembling a human in barely five minutes of screen-time; to Ronald Pickup, born to play Chamberlain and an excellent Ben Mendelsohn as stammering Bertie.

What isn’t quite so satisfactory is the script. The raw story arguably gives writer Anthony McCarten more to work with than the life of Stephen Hawking, but the pages he has produced are often equally flaccid and unconvincing as they were in The Theory of Everything. One huge problem is that the story, which pits Churchill’s newly-anointed Prime Minister against a gag of senior appeasers, doesn’t give him adequate space to articulate his views on how best to deal with the Nazi menace.

Senior parliamentary figures, having agreed to a war-time coalition on the basis that Chamberlain is removed from office, select Churchill as his successor, presumably knowing that he is certain that Hitler must be opposed and by military force, and then proceed to act as if the very thing was absolutely unthinkable. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that appeasement would have been a dreadful folly, but McCarten is so keen to make sure that Chamberlain, Halifax and the others are able to clearly explain the logic behind appeasement that he never gives Churchill the same opportunity. The result is that Winston is painted as a warmongering maverick who on this occasion got lucky. See Spielberg’s Lincoln for how to do this right. That film glides sedately to a stop while the President lays out exactly why nothing short of a constitutional amendment will do, because Spielberg understands that while such a scene might lack in visual excitement or emotional heft, if that issue is not made absolutely clear, then nothing else in the movie is going to matter.

And this may be the wrong place to bring this criticism up, but Oldman-as-Churchill is the latest in a long line of figures which I might call The Rude Good Man. This is a character who is breathtakingly arrogant and rude to those around him (often women) but whose rudeness is not without wit, and so we are invited to find it funny and iconoclastic (instead of just aggressive and unpleasant) and with whom we empathise because he is saying the unsayable and he is ultimately on the side of the angels. Isn’t it time this figure was laid to rest and Lily James given something to do other than have verbal punishment meted out to her?

So at the end of the film, Churchill must win over the doubters. Unlike Ava DuVernay, Wright is able to use Churchill’s real speeches, so we don’t get some awful paraphrase of “We will fight them on the beaches,” but the already-shaky logic of the film rather falls apart here. Churchill is criticised early on for not being straight with the people of Britain about just how dire the situation is. When the King comes around to his Prime Minister’s way of thinking (an epiphany which frustratingly happens off-screen) he tells him that they are now in partnership, but that the PM must start being straight with the British people. Churchill nods in agreement, but that is the last appearance of the King in the movie, and Churchill’s next opportunity to speak to the nation is the aforementioned famous barnstorming speech.

In fact, according to McCarten and Wright, what Churchill needed was to spend an implausibly long time going one stop on the London Underground, hob-nobbing with ordinary Londoners in order to kick-start his torpid confirmation bias. The absurd scene is the nadir of an otherwise fairly enjoyable film, and appears to have been left over from an earlier, sillier draft in which Churchill was made to sound like a Spitting Image puppet of Jeremy Corbyn, trying to score points in the house by asking questions from “ordinary voters”.

As far as the shooting goes, Wright does create a strong sense of place and time and texture, and he manages to pull off some impressive shots. What he lacks is the ability – which, again, Spielberg always seems to have had – to sew a number of amazing shots together into a fluid and dynamic sequence. Wright’s bravura dollies-to-the-sky and so on stand out because in the edit they are too often sandwiched between very static or otherwise pedestrian set-ups.

So – top ten movie of the year? Clearly not. But quite an enjoyable history lesson and a wonderful opportunity for one of our best actors to have a blast.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Following his debut feature In Bruges, which was astonishing unless you were already familiar with his amazing stage work, writer-director Martin McDonagh stumbled slightly with the diverting but hollow Seven Psychopaths. Three Billboards feels like his most mature, complex and satisfying work to date. Not nearly as much fun as In Bruges (no-one even comes close to exploding the head of a little person, even though there’s a little person right there and nobody calls anyone an inanimate fucking object at any stage) but considerably deeper, richer and more interesting.

Frances McDormand is excellent as grieving mother Mildred Hayes, who pays $5000 to put up three enormous billboards on a quiet country road, taunting the local police for their inability to find her daughter’s killer. McDonagh’s work in the theatre hasn’t lead him to fall into the trap of telling the whole story verbally. People having ideas is one of the hardest things to pull off in cinema. From the opening of this film, I know I’m in safe hands, because McDonagh doesn’t make a meal of it. He just films McDormand driving past the derelict billboards and looking at them. That’s all you need.

This action sets up a wave of recriminations which touches Sam Rockwell’s racist thug of a cop, John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, Caleb Landry-Jones as the billboard manager and essentially the whole town. McDonagh’s first master-stroke (of many) is making the principle antagonist, Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, not an intransigent authority figure but instead a deeply compassionate family man with a cancer diagnosis.

To say much more would be to spoil this endlessly rich and rewarding film, but what really struck me was how the playwright’s cynical and mordant tone has shifted into something much more hopeful and optimistic. So, yes, we do get some clumsy racial slurs early on (which to be honest, the film doesn’t need and which stick in the throat a bit), as well as the nasty fun of McDormand drilling a hole through a disgruntled dentist’s thumbnail, or – in one amazing shot – Rockwell tossing Landry-Jones out of a second-storey window. But ultimately, the film offers us a redemptive view of humanity which is hugely refreshing and uplifting.

Some of the plot contrivances have come in for criticism, and I understand where those critiques are coming from (hi guys) but I don’t entirely share them, except in one case, very near the middle of the film, where poor old Željko Ivanek is made to recite some truly awful dialogue which makes no sense at all, but which is simply required to move one of the chess pieces to the appropriate square on the board. What’s much more laudable is the way McDonagh manages to avoid the plot disintegrating into a very uninteresting whodunnit without the gears grinding in the least little way. And what’s truly impressive is the that the film constantly kept me guessing without me ever feeling cheated, bewildered or manipulated.

Every member of the cast acquits themselves with honour – look it’s Lester Freamon! – and Carter Burwell’s music knits the whole thing together. A wonderful film to savour, bar a few tiny stumbles.

Molly’s Game

Posted on January 7th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut arrives and it’s certainly a heady concoction, full of fizz and invention, but it does end up feeling just a little hollow. It’s the true story of the improbably-named Molly Bloom, whose career as a professional skier is interrupted by an injury and who ends up making more money running her boss’s poker game than she does doing her job. She therefore takes the game away from him and ends up as the unwitting confidante of a number of top players, including members of the Russian Mob.

Sorkin borrows a page from his own Facebook, designing the structure of the film around Molly’s court case, in which her phones full of incriminating texts from regulars at her poker games become the prize which law enforcement is after but which Molly, despite protestations from her lawyer, is unwilling to surrender. Around this main narrative thread, there are frequent flashbacks to Molly’s childhood, young adulthood and evenings running poker rooms.

The two different parts of the movie are handled very differently. Especially early on, Sorkin makes the flashbacks an assault on the senses. Chastain rattles out Sorkin’s voice-over dialogue with crisp authority as driving music knits together images from a huge variety of sources, to the point where the style is not so much Award Winning Prestige Motion Picture, but more YouTube video. At times, he seems about to fall prey to one of what David Frost called “Lord Privy Seals“.

The rest of the film – mainly contemporary verbal fencing between Jessica Chastain’s resolute Molly and Idris Elba’s compassionate lawyer (thankfully much more cautious Stringer Bell than lumpen Luther) –  is more conventionally shot and edited. Sorkin, whether wisely or not, trusts that his dialogue and his actors will carry the day. And they mostly do. Both Elba and Chastain do solid work, if a little one-note. Kevin Costner and Jeremy Strong are both fine. Michael Cera has fun as movie-star composite Player X, and Chris O’Dowd possibly has little too much fun as the hilariously inarticulate Douglas Downey, whose Russian Mob connections prove to be Molly’s downfall. It’s just a shame that as a director, Sorkin hasn’t found any middle ground between shooting his scenes like a particularly demented music video on the one hand, and like any random episode of The West Wing on the other.

The story itself is well-paced and never less than entertaining. Sorkin uses the backstory well, serves the needs of poker and poker-related gamesmanship, family drama and legal thriller equally and adroitly, and – as you might expect – the dialogue crackles along. He is also unafraid to deploy jokes, even during moment of the highest drama, so when Elba is speechifying or Chastain is expositing, all is right with the world.

But there are a few niggles. Surprisingly, not all the poker stuff is completely accurate. Twice Sorkin, who must have known better, over-reaches. Wanting to establish Michael Cera’s character as a brilliantly player who can force better hands to fold, he gives the other player the nuts, i.e. an unbeatable hand, which strains credulity quite unnecessarily. Later, he allows Molly to begin raking the pot in the middle of a hand, which is highly unlikely to be true. I suppose it could be, I haven’t read the book, but most players would revolt at this sudden, unexpected and irrevocable rewriting of the rules.

Ultimately, with an eye on the Oscars, the question becomes – is this just a thrill ride, a roller coaster of words and situations, or does it illuminate something bigger than itself. In conversations with Dad Costner and lawyer Elba, the nature of Molly’s stubborn integrity is probed, but she remains a movie hero, who plays by her own rules, but whose interior life is only glimpsed occasionally, unless it’s being spelled out for us in voice over.

And as the film has no ambitions to explore anything beyond the realms of poker and crime, this remains a well-made entertainment rather than a masterpiece.

Look out for episode 0 of my new podcast Best Pick, dropping on Wednesday, and be back here on 23 January for the Oscar nominations,

Pre-Oscars 2018

Posted on January 4th, 2018 in At the cinema | 1 Comment »

Although the nominations have not yet been announced, I’ve got my eye on what films are getting “buzz”. One leading candidate I’ve already seen (Dunkirk) and at least a couple of other slightly more left-field possibilities are also in the bag (Get Out and Bladerunner 2049) but back in London with a less-than-usually hectic schedule, I sought out a couple of indie films likely to get mentions on 23 January.

Please remember, my reviews are not guaranteed to be spoiler-free. Proceed at your own risk.

The first film I took in was The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s depiction of a young mother struggling to make ends meet for her and her six-year-old daughter in her run-down motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World in Orlando. Brooklyn Prince as Halley and Bria Vinaite as her daughter Mooney are outstanding as is the rest of the mostly-unknown cast who all give hugely engaging, truthful performances. Really only Willem Dafoe is at all familiar, but he slips in beautifully as Bobby, the wearily compassionate manager of the Magic Castle.

Halley scams, makes friends, makes enemies. Mooney plays, makes friends, makes enemies. Bobby bears witness, tries to protect Halley from herself and the motel from Halley, and all of this takes place walking distance from The Happiest Place On Earth™. Baker is very aware of the irony, but to his credit, never leans on it too heavily. It’s all beautifully observed and never less than fascinating to watch, but although to some extent Halley’s misdeeds do start catching up with her at the end of the film, I never quite got the sense of the dominoes starting to topple. Sean Baker has essentially made a dozen or so short films set in this fascinating location, but for me there’s no sense of crescendo even when social services arrive and try and take Mooney away. And the eventual (slightly inexplicable) trip to the real Magic Kingdom at the end doesn’t deliver the necessary catharsis either, because it’s all over with very quickly, and too many threads are left hanging.

Similarly episodic, but (slightly) more in control of the narrative structure is Call Me By Your Name which arrives festooned with awards and critical acclaim. Directed by Luca Guadagnino with a script by James Ivory from the novel by André Aciman, this is a coming-of-age story in four languages set in a bucolic Italian retreat some time in the 1980s.

Elio, the slightly feckless son of academic Jewish couple the Perlmans, sees his regular summer sojourns as a tedious stretch to be endured, but he begins experimenting sexually with one of the local girls, not least as a distraction from this year’s visiting student Oliver, played with brawny intelligence by Armie Hammer. Eventually, the two of them develop a sexual relationship.

As Elio, Timothée Chalamet is revelatory, his unstudied awkwardness and fleeting articulacy capturing with pure honesty the way a young life is slowly assembled through different experiences. But while this film doesn’t have the near-random order of events that weakens Florida, it does get a bit bogged-down in the long middle section where Elio and Oliver continue their affair, happily, warmly, equally and without fear of discovery or approbation. The desire to avoid melodrama is laudable, but the danger is that one avoids drama.

Looking at a synopsis, I can see that the plot of the novel has been streamlined, and I can understand why, but when it becomes clear that this is not an older man taking advantage of a younger man, nor a foolish infatuation of a teenager with an adult, but a genuine meeting-of-minds, then simply watching that play out is not quite as interesting to me as it apparently is for Guadagnino. So I found that the episodic feeling was a bigger problem here than with The Florida Project simply because the stakes feel so low here.

Unlike Florida, though, when the catharsis comes, it really hits home. In a movie which is largely concerned with visuals, where many scenes play out with little or no dialogue, the crucial scene is essentially a monologue from Michael Stuhlbarg to his son. Stahlbarg, a fabulous actor, pulls it off magnificently, and so finally, and without ever tipping into hysteria, the film delivers a real punch of an ending, which considerably makes up for the sluggish preceding half hour or so.

That’s it for now. Other movies which I imagine are in the running include The Post, Molly’s GameThree Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Lady Bird, and Detroit. I also wouldn’t rule out The Big SickThe Shape of Water and I Tonya.