Saturday, 17 February 2018

A Man in a Women's World

Is being an artist a kind of curse? That is one of the questions raised by Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer in 1950s London whose clients see his creations less as pretty dresses than a crucial part of their female empowerment, one of his customer saying that it will give her courage.

This film is about many things: clothing, sewing, driving, the risk of love, the exercise of power, and above all, breakfast. After all, it is the most important part of the day. More narrowly, the film is a portrait of a certain kind of male temperament that is just asking for a reward. In that regard, Phantom Thread connects to everything going on in our culture right now. The movie comes on, for a good long stretch as a romantic suspense thriller coursing with dread; but Anderson is not content to make a black-hearted retro genre film. He is too ambitious, and once Alma exacts her revenge, the movie does something a little bizarre: it goes back to square one, so that Reynolds, even after proposing to Alma, turns out to be the same old dick he always was. 

Daniel Day-Lewis gives us one last blessing before he disappears into his version of retirement. Indeed, having announced this retirement last summer, Day-Lewis would have us believe that it marks his final screen performance, which is a shame. The movie, then, serves only to remind audiences what a monumental talent he possesses, being able to communicate vision through temperament and just a glimmer of Freudian anxiety, simply by holding his sharp face in profile. Reynolds is wrapping himself up in his genius and expects all those around him to be in his low orbit, to be called on and used whenever he is ready but to otherwise remain out of the way. Which means he is not the best guy to date, dismissing women when they have begun to annoy him in some way, or when they get too close to seeing beyond whatever tortured artist bullshit he is steeped himself in. Of course, there is a dead mother in the picture. For the phantom thread of the title, the phrase apparently refers to the ghostly yarn that would haunt Victorian seamstresses, their exhausted fingers compulsively repeating sewing motions long after their work was done. But it could also invoke the lock of his mother’s hair that Reynolds has sewn into the canvas of his coat, keeping her always close to his heart. She taught him his trade and, just aged 16, he created a wedding dress for her. In Day-Lewis’s hands, Reynolds is a bully and a brat, but we see some bits of decency peeking out through all his measured prickliness. He is obnoxious, this man who professionally, arrogantly instructs women how to comport themselves and then treats it as empowerment. But he is also funny and charming in his moody way. There are a few moments of towering anger, but mostly Day-Lewis keeps things interior; Reynolds is a more reserved and watchful kind of a jerk.

Most crucially, Anderson puts two formidable women beside Reynolds, and Phantom Thread undergoes a disarming transformation from a chilly portrait of a cruel and powerful male narcissist, to what could be described as a romantic comedy. The great Lesley Manville plays Reynolds’s sister, Cyril, a crisp and commanding business partner and, in subtle ways, a confidant. She does the breaking up for Reynolds, firmly but not unkindly. That is the formula for the arrival of Alma played by Vicky Krieps, a waitress Reynolds brings from the countryside to London, installing her in his stately townhome as his muse and lover. It is an arrangement we just know will end at some point, and bad because this is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, and some sense of ruin or despair tends to arrive eventually in his films. Daniel Day-Lewis is complemented well by Manville. Unmarried herself, Cyril could easily have been rendered a brittle spinster. But Manville and Anderson instead give Cyril a confidence, a knowing, a self-possession that feels a bit revolutionary. She is not alone. Because she has Reynolds. But also, because she has her business, and she has herself. There is a fascinating ambivalence about all their exchanges and it is great to see Manville's excellent work here being honoured with an Oscar nod.

Reynolds and Alma circle one another, figuring out their dynamic by testing and prodding to see where boundaries lie, something like actual parity gradually develops between them. By the film’s lovely, darkly amusing end, it has become clear that Reynolds and Alma have found some corresponding need and understanding within each other, that theirs is a bond that works because it sometimes breaks because it is dramatic and odd and makes a bizarre kind of sense only to them. There is a “you and me babe, against the world” kind of vibe to the film. Vicky Krieps, who was unknown to me before this, makes the strongest impression. The Luxembourg actress has been handed a complicated role: a woman who is both antagonized and antagonizing. She finds just the right bearing on the material, mixing the pain and the humour and the slightly more surreal stuff to stand strongly toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis. It is a terrific breakthrough performance, wise, clever and sexy. Alma is quite a creation. She also develops, fascinatingly, a perverse, gothic tinge to her character and her increasingly manipulative acts of affection.

Anderson does his own cinematography. He styles the film with a grainy, muted texture, tailored and expensive but lived-in. Jonny Greenwood’s lush, indispensable score is the fourth major character in the film. It is just gorgeous work, as integral to the experience of the film as its sterling trio of lead actors. What ensues is a delicious slice of teatime gothic reminiscent of Rebecca and Suspicion, within which love and sexual attraction become vectors for mistrust, battles of wills and power dialectics of Hegelian proportions.

As a commentary on the despotic male artistic gaze, Phantom Thread will no doubt remind several viewers of Mother! Darren Aronofsky’s hallucinatory journey to the dark side of creative obsession. Anderson creates a far more pleasant sensory experience in a film that, between the visuals, rich brocades, laces and velvets, and Greenwood’s alternately dissonant and delicately lyrical music, exerts an irresistible sensuous pull. Indeed, this would most obviously set Phantom Thread to be yet another cinematic study in female exploitation and abuse, with Alma consumed and spat out by this dark-hearted older man of power. But instead, Anderson’s more interested in the highs and lows of a relationship between someone who appears that way, and a woman who is much stronger than he at first thinks. In making the film, Anderson drew on the careers of several British designers of the period, and the essential exotic element for the audience is that this is the pre-couture world, where fashion, at least in Britain, had yet to enter its postmodern dream phase. That was just starting in France, Reynolds at one point, even spits out the word “chic” as if it were a vile obscenity. Phantom Thread is seductive and absorbing, but it is also emotionally remote. Paul Thomas Anderson remains a filmmaking wizard, and Phantom Thread sweeps you up and carries you along. Yet it is a thesis movie: the story of a bullying narcissist who lacks the ability to have a relationship, and the outrageous way he’s schooled into becoming a human being. It’s the story of a control freak made by a control freak.

In conclusion, as Phantom Thread winningly argues, it does not much matter how I see it, or how anyone else on the outside does. In the end, there is only one person who really needs to get it - and only one person who really can. The film is such an indulgence to watch, it is such an ode to pleasure and beauty, cinematic and otherwise, that it is difficult to pinpoint why it is not necessarily satisfying. Indeed, the oppressive style and sublimated Hitchcockian tensions might not be for everyone either, but I loved this film, omelette and all, and suspect it will eventually be seen as a Gothic classic. I seem to find Gothic reference to every movie I watch these days… Go figure!

A True Wonder of Magical Realism

Magical, thrilling and romantic to the core, The Shape of Water is a sensual and fantastical fairy tale with moral overtones. It is a film that plays by all the rules and none of them at the same time, going fiercely its own way. It features a marvellous performance by Sally Hawkins. Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasy is a romantic fairy tale for grownups, at once deeply familiar and utterly original. Eggs, water, and sex will all play crucial and overlapping roles in the director’s film.

Guillermo Del Toro’s principal inspiration for the film was the 1954 monster-movie classic Creature from the Black Lagoon, which he watched when he was 7 years old. Why — he wondered even then — did the creature never get the girl? Why, indeed. Nobody makes horror quite so romantic. At his very best, del Toro’s work holds the dream, nightmare and realism in perfect balance, pulling you into terrible worlds, holding your hand just tight enough that you feel safe. From those fantasy worlds, he looks out at ours in all its cruelty. The Shape of Water is a hybrid movie it is difficult to imagine any other director pulling off successfully. It is at once a monster picture, a romantic fable, an ode to classic cinema, a parable of tolerance and an espionage thriller. This film comes very close to being just as good as his 2006 masterpiece: Pan’s Labyrinth.  Once again, de Toro depicts a fantastical story against the backdrop of growing tensions between America and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. This is the early 60s, at the height of the civil rights protests, and racism is still prevalent everywhere, so is homophobia. In such an intolerant society, there is no chance that the underwater creature that has been discovered will be accepted.

Most of all the film, much like Pan’s Labyrinth, plays simultaneously as a fantastical dream and as a story set in a very recognizable time and place. As so often with the Mexican director, it also has the timeless glow of fairy-tale, and could often almost be Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid turned back to front. If the phrase “magical realism” had not already been coined, someone would have to coin it quickly. It is a lovely film, but it is never cheesy. There are musical dream sequences but there are violence, blood and harsh reality as well. It is not just a fairy tale, but a pretty urgently moral, political film and finding modern parallels for greed-motivated leaders who fear equality, is not hard.

Our protagonist, Elisa is played with consummate grace by Sally Hawkins. An opening narration provided by Elisa’s neighbour Richard Jenkins describes her as “a princess without a voice”; it is the film’s poetic way of breaking it to us that she is a lifelong mute, after having her vocal cords cut in early childhood. Elisa is, for any number of reasons, the kind of role that comes along just once a lifetime and Sally Hawkins meets it with the performance of one. By contrast, she senses an immediate kinship, even intimacy, with the creature. He, too, cannot speak, except through barks and snarls. So, she shares her hard-boiled eggs with him, plays him Glenn Miller records on a portable phonograph, and teaches him rudimentary sign language. This marks the beginning of what is, to say the least, a highly uncommon love story. Sally Hawkins wordless performance holds the movie together and grounds its wilder fancies in an emotional reality. By turns gentle and curious, vulnerable and fearless, she provides the film with a heroine whose humanity is profoundly irresistible, no matter what your species. Guillermo del Toro makes sure to tell us immediately that this is not some pristine Disney princess made flesh by showing Elisa masturbating in the bath, with a timer on so that she is done before her breakfast’s cooked. The woman is practical.

The cast is exceptional across the board, as the fish-man, actor-mime Doug Jones manages astonishing expressiveness under his deep layers of scaly blue prosthetic, essentially reprising his role of Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy films. Michael Shannon plays Strickland - an immediate classic in his ever-expanding gallery of villains. A performance that makes up for in intensity squandering through a caricature of all-around sexist, racist creep. Indeed, he is a nasty piece of work, and it is a satisfying moment when Elisa signs an insult at him, her face incandescent with contempt. His determination to be seen as a success on society’s terms is palpable. “This is the car of the future, and you strike me as a man on his way there!” a Cadillac salesman tells him in one scene. What he really means is: I can sense you are petrified of being left behind. The car dealership interlude is just one scene among many here that only a filmmaker working at the peak of his powers would even think to create. Another involves Elisa watching drops of rain waltz across the passenger window of a bus. The moment counts for next to nothing on paper. Yet in context, it is an exquisite evocation of her changing connection to the outside world. Last but not least, Michael Stuhlbarg, still completely underused if I am being honest, offers a customarily appealing turn as a benevolent scientist who has a secret of his own.

One of the great benefits of The Shape of Water is not only its wonderful cast but how Guillermo del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor afford the entire cast a sense of place and a past. The early scenes in which Octavia Spencer talks incessantly about her husband do indeed have an unexpected payoff, just as the subplot featuring Richard Jenkins’ character trying to regain an old graphic-design job ties into the general commentary within the film regarding prejudice. As in Pan’s Labyrinth, there is a welcome sense of depth to the characters inhabiting this world, not just a protagonist and antagonist.

Horror and fairy tales recur in his movies, but del Toro has been accused by some, of reaching too high with his visual concepts and falling frustratingly short. That may be true of some of his films, but it is certainly not the case here. The sumptuous cinematography by Dan Laustsen makes perfect use of the film’s Cold War setting, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is wistfully nostalgic. Elisa and Giles live above a movie theatre and spend evenings watching Shirley Temple and Carmen Miranda on TV, mimicking dance steps as they sit on the sofa. In the film’s most unexpected sequence, Guillermo del Toro unites its science fiction and musical theatre elements for a truly bizarre, woman-and-merman, a Broadway-style number set to the Harry Warren and Mack Gordon standard “You’ll Never Know”.

Admittedly, there are a few elements of The Shape of Water that may be recognizable to fans of del Toro’s 2006 film. But the core romance of The Shape of Water goes beyond any of the fantasy relationships in Pan’s Labyrinth. If perhaps, Ofelia was a mute adult and was in love with the faun who guides her through her three challenges, it might be more recognizable. What is unavoidable is the rising tension in Elisa’s romance with this Amphibious Man that she might be found out, either by the establishment figures looking to experiment on the hybrid creature or by Russian spies who want to take him for their own nefarious purposes. Elisa’s desire to dive headlong into the outrageous romance with this man does mirror Ofelia’s willingness to escape the darkness of her real life, with her ill mother on one hand and a nasty stepfather on the other, though the cruelty of the world seems to impact Elisa less even before she meets her new paramour. Besides these obvious parallels, there are reverent homages to James Whale’s Frankenstein and Steven Spielberg’s E.T, and maybe even Ron Howard’s Splash. Yet, The Shape of Water does not quite have their unselfconscious power or fun, for all its magnificence. Intriguingly, it has a brilliant atmosphere of a golden age song-and-dance routine that surely owes something to Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, but it is hard to tell if the resemblance is conscious, subconscious, accidental, or just me being too deep into my master thesis on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which now turns into obsession.

The way Guillermo del Toro builds this highly improbable romance is incredibly clever. The fact that Elisa is as silent as the creature puts them on an even footing. If she could speak, her attempts to converse with him might make him seem like a pet. Because they both communicate through action, they are equal in the conversation. They grow closer through sign language, body language and music. Before you know it, it seems completely reasonable that a human woman might fancy a sea creature.

In conclusion, what makes Guillermo del Toro’s films often so remarkable, is the sense that only he could have told these stories. Many genre filmmakers, successful or not, may not be as capable of translating their passions into a full story, but now del Toro has done it more than once. Though The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth share creative DNA, the former has scenes that are so singular, and yet so weirdly apt, to this story that it is hard to imagine literally any other person making a story so tender, visceral, and intense. The Shape of Water proves to be one of Guillermo del Toro’s most personal films, another case of the director successfully using real-world and high-tension conflicts as the setting for one of his unique fables.

Overall, Guillermo del Toro’s visually ravishing fantasy romance The Shape of Water almost drowns in its own gorgeousness. It is a Beauty and the Beast fable where both get to be beautiful and neither has to be beastly. The film is a deep dive into a dream state, like a two-hour episode of The Twilight Zone written by Puccini. I am sure it is a movie that will grow with repeat watches. On first viewing it is a flood of wondrous moments and sinister, beautiful images. As it settles, as you think on it for days after, its deeper meanings rise to the surface. Be in no doubt. My current, slight favorite for the best picture Oscar is a lovely thing.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

"Boston Strong"

Stronger is the inspiring real-life story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become a symbol of hope after surviving the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Sometimes movies impress you with their formal daring, their transgressiveness, their experimental boldness. Sometimes movies win you over with visual spectacle, novelty, unpredictability. And sometimes movies do not necessarily have any of those qualities, they just flat-out work. This is the case of Stronger. Perhaps the most striking thing about David Gordon Green’s movie is how it refuses to turn its protagonist into a hero or a symbol of courage; as you might legitimately expect of a survivor story, even while the world is clamouring to put him on a pedestal. This is understandable, Boston needed a symbol to thrive so they could say the terrorists did not win. Yet, Stronger shows how Jeff Bauman never asked to be anyone’s hero, in fact, it shows that he may not even be capable of being one. The film is simple. It is a straightforward recreation of how this man rebuilt his life after the trauma, learned to walk on prosthetic legs and matured enough to accept responsibility for a wife and child. The film is based on the memoir by Bauman and Brett Witter, it devotes very little time to the bombing itself, but gives a great deal of space to the ordeal of learning to accept a loss and find meaning in life.

Jake Gyllenhaal, whose recent work has been of such a uniformly high calibre that it is almost easy to overlook, tackles this role with every ounce of his usual commitment. He, as always, disappears into the lead role, which is no small job. This is not a rosy tribute to a determined hero so much as the tale of an imperfect man who is forced to rise to the occasion. Stronger hits a number of familiar beats charting the road to recovery. Jeff experiences post-traumatic stress hits rock bottom and inevitably finds a reason to live. Gyllenhaal, who co-produced the film with his company Nine Stories Productions, brings an everyday-man quality to Jeff. Emotionally wounded by his bossy mother and by his own weaknesses, he makes a journey that everyone can identify with.

Miranda Richardson is amazing in the supporting role of the mother with her closely observed comic mannerisms. Queen of this brood, she is a pissed-up matriarch who bellows baritone Massachusettisms through puffs of cigarette smoke and glasses of cheap Chardonnay. If Jeff is a screw-up, Patty is the tree he fell from. Miranda Richardson’s larger-than-life turn might not be for everyone, but she is impossible to ignore and threatens to steal focus from everyone she shares a screen with. The reconstructing of Jeff relationship with Erin proves to be the greatest challenge of all though. Maslany, who is well-known for her role in the TV series Orphan Black, is a fine actress who plays cool and mature. But she is capable of slipping into colourful Boston vernacular when the situation gets hot.

Indeed, in the past, Gyllenhaal has slimmed down to a skeletal wisp in Nightcrawler and bulked up to play a boxer in Southpaw, but here he delivers an equally physical performance without any ‘dramatic’ transformation, packing all the meaning into changes in posture, and composing with a good half-dozen different degrees of hungover. Sure, he has a handful of showy Oscar reel moments, but he is even more impressive when he and Green take the road less travelled, such as a long single-take hospital scene in which Jeff has his bandages removed. This is shot with Gyllenhaal in the foreground, his legs in the background, and neither clearly visible – rather than rub our faces in outward expressions of suffering or shock us with clinical close-ups. The scene stresses the despair and out-of-body unreality of such an ordeal.

The film works, even though there are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of it. It is a true story, cloaked in prestige trappings, about overcoming impossible odds. Director David Gordon Green, who is best known for comedies such as Pineapple Express and Your Highness, does an excellent job of putting the audience into Jeff’s conflicted state of mind. The camera zooms in uncomfortably close to his face as he emerges from the hospital and waves to the crowd waiting for him, offering a tentative thumbs-up. Green does not sugarcoat the tough stuff, either. Everyday activities: getting out of bed, using the bathroom or bathing, become painful trials.

In conclusion, Stronger is not always easy to watch. Jeff makes bad decisions and life gets messy. But it does feel like a realistic depiction of one man’s life. He might not have been the idealized champion the world tried to make him, but in the end, that just makes his story more compelling. Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the finest and most intuitive actors of his generation and his triumph in Stronger is letting us see a man who won't let a tragedy define him. When the movie ends, we sense a life still going on, a man still ready for anything.

Overall, the film portrays a deeply human and often brutally honest depiction of trauma and recovery, anchored by three superb performances.