The Month in Movies: February 2018

What an incredible month February 2018 has been.

I mean, we…

Okay, nothing much of note really happened in February to me personally. But I did see some movies and this is what I thought of them.

We’re still in award season, but I think I’m just about covered enough to make a proper judgement on all major nominations. I will be submitting my votes and sending them in a letter marked The Academy, Los Angelese. I assumed I’ll probably just send it through the post box. Should be okay with a second class stamp, I would have thought. I just hope it gets there in time.

Phantom Thread

Phantom-Thread-poster-landscape

Phantom Thread is the latest film from acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson, not to be confused with less acclaimed director and Anderson, Paul WS Anderson, both of whom are not to be confused with other acclaimed director and Anderson, Wes Anderson. Please get your Andersons right. Paul Thomas Anderson initially shot to prominence with his star studded multi-character dramas such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, this was before he knuckled down on starker more intimate character pieces, such as Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice films which are nearly always soundtracked in increasingly stark fashion by Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead.

Phantom Thread is a romance with ‘gothic undertones’, a sentence that would have my old English teacher nodding sagely at. Set in 1950s London, we have Reynolds Woodcroft (Daniel Day Lewis), a brilliant dressmaker and ‘man of method’ that requires a strict regime that cannot be interrupted. He makes dresses for rich and powerful women. Most of his clientele view him with a quiet pining awe, as he labours the hours away with the sole mission to make them look and feel fabulous. This in itself has rather has a deep seated connection to Reynold’s own relationship with his own mother, of whom he made a wedding dress for when he was just a boy. There seems to be an element of this relationship in every dress he makes and every woman he becomes romantically connected. And yes, like Oedipus, it’s definitely weird and in need of correction.  

Reynolds lives life as a bachelor with a series of problematic relationships with a string of women. The film begins with him getting tired off his current girlfriend, to which his sister and business partner (pitch perfect performance by Leslie Manville) literally negotiates the breakup, whilst Reynolds absconds to the English coast in his motor car where he soon becomes captivated by the next woman. The next women is a humble blushing waitress called Alma (Vicky Krieps). To her, Reynolds initially seems like the perfect debonair gentleman, but as she becomes enveloped in his life and business she realises it’s a one sided relationship, one where he calls all the shots, where she is only granted ‘access’ to him when he allows it. To him, she is an accessory to his life, a blank canvas for him to project his own talent upon. Less a loving adult relationship and more of a pet muse. Since Reynolds is never going to change, Phantom Thread is really about what Alma is going to do about that.

Some women ‘like a project’ and I suppose from that perspective Reynolds seems like the ultimate project. Of course in Phantom Thread both partners see each other as projects. A partner to be fixed, or at least to be held in check – though it’s probably fair to say that in these kinds of movies, the male creative genius is usually is going to have his way at the expense of his female partner. I’ve probably seen too many movies by this stage, so much so that I thought the film was destined to end violently, like There Will Be Blood or Darren Arronofsky’s Mother! that is very similar in many thematic aspects. It felt like this gothic romance was going to turn crimson especially with the strings of Johnny Greenwood’s score getting increasingly abrasive. But again, maybe that’s because I’ve seen too many movies. Or that I’m carrying my own baggage into the film. Maybe I’m the one who is sick?

I guess this is what marriage must be like.

Daniel Day Lewis is brilliant. As you watch you can’t help but wonder how far deep he is immersed in the character. He obviously comes across as a man of considerable talent in his field, but there’s a boyishness to him, a slight creepiness or quirkiness that just stops him from coming across as this fully developed adult male.  If this is to be his last movie, you could read from the subtext that the actor and character are one and the same, both demonstrating this great talent in a particular craft, both having a meticulous method which seems to create the performance that is revered on a worldclass level. In this regard, Phantom Thread is a fitting swansong for the actor. Of course whether he remains retired is a pretty open question.

This is easily Johnny Greenwood’s best soundtrack yet. It seems to capture the initial butterflies of love at first sight, the swoon of the sudden rush of passion, yet needling all of this it into the delicate process of tailoring but always falling back on the sweeping refrains that bring out the gothic tones. It’s one of those soundtracks that completely goes in step with everything what is being shown on screen.

Phantom Thread is a great movie, of great subtlety and many different layers. I’m still thinking about it, now almost 4 weeks after first seeing. I don’t even thing a single viewing is enough to pick up on everything that is happening. It’s probably too good to win any awards though (apart from Johnny Greenwood). Everyone involved is at the top of their game, I feel it puts all other recent films to shame.

That’s it done. Everybody go home. We peaked too early this year.

I, Tonya

I, Tonya poster

Each and every year,  about this time of year it is usual to face an onslaught of film biopics. Usually, these are stories about one person overcoming terrible adversity to make a greater difference to the world (see Darkest Hour). I, Tonya is that same kind of biopic about one person overcoming great adversity and well… just struggling to overcome it. It’s not exactly a sympathetic character piece, it walks the line between something like Alfie and Wolf of Wall Street of which Margot Robbie also starred. Not very nice characters talking candidly directly into camera and kind of shrugging at how fucked everything is.

Margot Robbie plays Tonya Harding, a gifted ice skater and self identifying redneck who is attempting to compete in the Winter Olympics for team USA. The only problem is, that in the world of professional ice skating, women are supposed to adhere to a certain standand of manner and Tonia comes from a poor background, with an abusive boyfriend (Sebastian Stan) and an equally abusive mother (Allison Janney) who has administered her own brand of tough love. All are elements that work together to seemingly provide Tonia with the drive to succeed – like pulling off a triple-lutz like it was nothing, but equally these are all things that threaten to be the undoing of everything she has ever worked towards.

I, Tonya has a fantastic cast all round. Allison Janney is truly detestable as the mother, but you can’t help but laugh at her deadpan delivery even though you will soon be recoiling in horror at her attempts to ‘parent’. Sebastian Stan as ‘moustache’  is also detestable in a much more slimier way, as Tonia’s doofus boyfriend and serial abuser. Centre stage is Margot Robbie who holds it all together in more ways than one (she also produced the film) and she is really good in this. Sure I think they may have superimposed her face on to the body of a professional ice skater at points, but her performance all leads up to this scene in which she is applying her makeup for her big routine and has this quiet breakdown, which is just heartbreaking to watch.

I, Tonya is badass, darkly comedic and immensely entertaining because of it, but also very very sad. Better than all of the Winter Olympics combined basically.

Black Panther

One of these days, the Marvel movies are going to turn bad. But not today. I feel like I’ve been saying this after every Marvel movie released over the last 10 years. Though they may release the odd uninspired feature, they always bounce back stronger with something like Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok. Having already introduced the Black Panther character in Captain America: Civil War, now comes the Black African superhero’s standalone film set mostly (and notably) in Africa with a mostly black cast directed by wonderboy Ryan Coogler. I can already hear the entitled white fanboy brigade scrambling from their forums to their battlements upon their mole hill to raise a tiny Hell for the vilification of the white man in modern popular culture.”

“We’ll destroy the film by mass bombing it’s rotten tomatoes scores with bad reviews! To the Tomatometer! Disney will never see us coming…”

What a bunch of fucking wankers.

Ahem…

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to Wakanda where he will become the king, inheriting the throne from his father (who got killed in Civil War). Wakanda is a fictional African country founded millennia ago on a big chunk of rare and precious space metal known as vibranium. As a result it has developed into this technological paradise, an El Dorado or Eden kept secret from the rest of the world. Where Black African ingenuity was allowed to flourish and prosper untouched by the ravages of colonialism and slavery.  As T’Challa becomes king of Wakanda, he must deal with his own self doubt and grief over the death of his father, not to mention the insistence from his friends and family to perhaps open Wakanda’s borders to the rest of the world – utilising their incredible wealth and scientific technology for the betterment of mankind. Enter Killmonger, (Michael B. Jordan) a Wakandan exile and heir to the throne, born of a tragic past, that makes him committed to take the throne by any means necessary.From his perspective, Wakanda shut it’s borders for centuries whilst Black people suffered. He intends to change that.

Much has been said about Black Panther already and many superlatives have been blessed upon it. I don’t think since last year’s Get Out (possibly Wonder Woman) there has been a movie that has actively pushed people into cinemas with such force. Which I can’t stress enough is a really great thing because no-one goes to the cinema these days. Black Panther is really good – but it’s still that familar Marvel formula.  You’ll have to bear the third act fight between two CGI superheroes punching plastically at each other as they free fall into the centre of the earth. However all the core elements are much stronger. Wakanda as this futuristic African El Dorado, is a really cool imaginative setting in the same way the cosmic was so colourful in Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor Ragnarok. The main hero has plenty of conflict to deal with that makes him far more alluring as a character. Boseman plays him with an effortlessly cool and considered grace. It’s not just a case of the hero crying wolf to deaf ears only to gain validation at the end that he was right all along, y’know the way all of these movies usually play out.

The whole ensemble of characters are great. There is a really terrific female cast in particular. Danai Gurira is this badass Grace Jones styled royal bodyguard, leader of an army of other Grace Jones styled spearwomen. My favourite was probably Letita Wright as T’Challa’s brainy sister, who could probably give Tony Stark a run for his money.

Then there’s Michael B. Jordan as the villain, Killmonger.  For once in these movies, the villain is also a very really strong character who comes from an understandable place. Killmonger grew into a tragic life before serving time in the military and begins to apply a more militant sense of justice to this idealised African state corrupting it from within. It may have been nice to have more scenes with him in, but he does get to leave his mark in a quite frankly incredible scene in which the boy and the man converses with a deceased relative and then some solid pathos after the admittedly weak final battle. In the end this is what sets Black Panther apart, there is a very intriguing concept at it’s core about modern black identity, though I guess you could apply it to any conversation about borders with negligible histories. This is a Marvel movie that is actually about something and saying something aside from just setting up the next movie in the franchise.

A bonafide marvel you might say. Infinity War opens April, and will presumably throw the entire Marvel sink at the screen, but will it have as much nuance as Black Panther? I really hope they at least bring back the war rhinos.

Game Night

It’s been a while since I’ve gone out to see a bonafide comedy at the cinema. The last one I can remember was The Big Sick (which admittedly was pretty great). I’m not exactly sure what happened to mainstream comedy over recent years but I feel a similar kind of fallout to what happened with horror a couple of years ago. For a while it seemed there were no good horror movies coming out. Year after year you’d get these cheaply made formulaic cut and paste franchise machines with nothing of great intelligence, or interest at their core. Paranormal Activity, Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious, Sinister, Malevolence Rising, Heebie Jeebies, Shiverous, Icky Death Bastard…

I think I made a couple of those up… It’s real late.

Comedy has fallen to the same pitfalls. It’s kind of fallen into the awkward middle ground of cinematic releases. I mean look at the way they title these movies now – Horrible Bosses, Bad Moms, Bad Neighbours, Bad Teachers, Bad Grandpas, Dirty Grandpas. You don’t even have to think about it, it’s comedy grounded down to it’s base denominator. These bosses are so horrible! We can all relate though can’t me? These moms sure do say fuck a lot! I’ve never seen moms acting this bad, whatever will they do next?

And so Game Night.

A group of adults headed up by married couple Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams meet once a week for game night probably because it’s too expensive to do anything else in these less affluent times (have you seen the price of cinema tickets lately?). So wifey wants to start a family, husbandy is less inclined because he has to grow up some more but also his sperm is crippled by stress  because of his more handsome and generally better brother coming to town – no really – that happens. It’s not a joke. His brother arrives and vows to outdo Jason Bateman’s normal game night by hiring a company to stage a fake kidnapping. Little does the party know, that the brother actually does get kidnapped by actual criminals. And so the merry buddies go off to find the brother under the illusion that everything is just one big elaborate game! Hilarious consequences ensue.

I might sound down on it already, but honestly? It’s fine. I enjoyed it from start to finish and laughed several times. Any movie with cameos from Jeffrey Wright or Chelsea Peretti, can’t be totally bad, right? There’s a lot of jokes and story beats that are setup early on that have some kind of clever payoff at the end. Which I guess you could say is a given in most decently made films. But still, I live for this shit man. Setup, arc, payoff, catharsis, the balance of everything.

Actually when I think about it, there is this one shot of Jason Bateman right at the start, in which he is perfectly centred within the frame and literally stares dead on into the camera and smiles in this soul ravaging way that made me want to punch myself in the stomach.

Even though they do repeat that same shot of Bateman smiling directly at camera at the end, Bateman and McAdams have great chemistry. The side characters are all pretty endearing with performances vying on the right sight of improv – let’s call it It’s Always Sunny styled improv, which gets the thumbs up from me (you see how it’s done Will Ferrel?). Jesse ‘Meth Damon’ Plemons pops up unexpectedly and steals much of the show as the weird neighbour who is basically this movie’s version of Zach Galifiankis in the Hangover.

It’s fine, but I’ll forget it in about a week’s time. Then, months later, I’ll actually get invited to a Game Night, and I’m like “Games Night? What the heck is all that about”?The hosts will respond, “Y’know like that movie”? Expecting me to just know. “What movie?” I’ll say, drawing an instant blank. They’ll cock their head in bemusement before the sudden realisation of, “Oh my god, you’ve not seen Game Night? Charlie, to think we looked up to you as this movie god!?” I’ll feel a little bit dejected after my friends reveal what I am to them, whilst they go off excitedly and grab the DVD they recently purchased on impulse. They’ll lend me the DVD and once again I’ll be reacquainted with Jason Bateman’s face once again, too handsome to be abjectly funny, to ordinary to do anything else but comedy and I’ll think “Oh right Game Night, I did see this.” But I’m too polite to refuse their gesture of kindness, and so I’ll bring it back with me. I’ll walk home after a night of games, because I would have been drinking, but still sober enough to want to get my fitbit step count up. I’ll be carrying the DVD all the way like an asshole. I’ll enter my house. I’ll place the DVD on the hallway table, where it will stay, slowly buried by unopened post and promptly forgotten about all over again.

Lady Bird

ladybird-poster

Remember Garden State? Released in 2004, written, directed and starring Zach Braff about an adult Zack Braff returning back to his home following the death of his mother and he’s all depressed and stuff, and though he initially hates coming back he gradually realises that home wasn’t all bad? Remember, it had that shot of him wearing a shirt that was the same pattern as the wallpaper. Genius! Remember when they were all dressed in binliners and stood on that van and screamed into the rain? Because adulting is so hard? Remember how it was praised as an indie darling  at the time but with distance it became this irritating shoe gazing Zack Braff vanity piece in which he called all the shots which presumably allowed him to kiss Natalie Portman? Remember Garden State?

Lady Bird is a much better movie than Garden State, but it shares a lot of similarities. Written and directed by actress Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is a coming of age about the changing notion of home and where you came from. It’s the kind of film you look back on with a pleasant sigh,  a warm sepia tint, the glow of nostalgia for the the heady days of 2003, in which I also grew up. Those were days. Where GCSEs were a cakewalk and I spent all my lunch money buying albums in Musiczone in Newcastle Under Lyme – my real education. I probably will never be as thin or nutritionally lacking in all my life – but I was happy even though I probably didn’t realised it at the time. In some ways it was a simpler time, though there was the war on terror, there was no social media, no Brexit, no Trump, and probably most importantly, no Garden State for at least a year.

Saoirse ‘so good in everything’ Ronan plays adolescent teen Christine who prefers to be known as Lady Bird at least at this stage of her life. Living in the sleepy suburbs of Sacramento, California, she attends Catholic school and struggles to find acceptance as she heads into the her final year of school before college. Along the way she encounters boys and generally is at complete odds with her overbearing mother (played by Laurie Metcalf). The mother/daughter relationship is the heart of the film and Ronan and Metcalf just feel so natural in their roles and relationship with one another. One moment they are enjoying the audio book about Grapes of Wrath, the next moment they’re bickering about nothing. And then… well no one would have predicted that Lady Bird would suddenly jump out of a moving vehicle…

Lady Bird just has so much charm and wit, it’s impossible not to be won over by it. It’s the kind of movie that posits the mantra ‘everything will be okay’ and all people are nice when you get to know them, even when they are acting like complete ass holes. If you’re wanting something with more grit or blood, this isn’t that movie. But sometimes it’s okay to enjoy a nice movie, where nothing in particular really happens.

But Garden State can fuck right off.

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