Talking Movies

February 24, 2018

A Bluffer’s Guide to Phantom Thread

Life is too short to watch the films nominated for the Oscars, but how else can one join in on conversations about the films nominated for the Oscars? Fear not, for here is your manual for being in the know.

Not having seen Phantom Thread should not stop you indulging in in-jokes about it, or making obscure references to scenes to cut out from the chatter people who also haven’t seen it, but haven’t read this piece either. There are three obscure things you simply must do. You must say, “Ah Fitzrovia, all shot on location there, as you recognised I’m sure” and then sigh wistfully, leaving your listeners discomfited at their lack of Old London chic. You must praise Brian Gleeson’s upper-crust English accent, and compare it to Day-Lewis’ cut-glass accent in 1985’s A Room with a View. You must impress upon people the extravagance of Paul Thomas Anderson hiring a 1950s red London double-decker bus for an entire day, only to drive it past a window, out of focus in the background of a shot, for two seconds; and then crush them by saying “Ah, yes, but it is indispensable. Phantom Thread isn’t just set in the 1950s, in that scene for those seconds it embodies the 1950s.”

Now then, quotable quotes; some of which are damned hard to work naturally into a conversation unless you find yourself in a kitchen or eating breakfast. If you do find yourself near some food, clatter the cutlery about, and make a noisy show of scraping your knife on toast; and then mutter “Entirely too much activity at breakfast” or “It’s like you rode a horse across the room” with a knowing wink. To completely dispel any doubt that you have no idea what you’re actually referencing then deadpan very seriously, “If his breakfast gets upset he finds it very hard to recover for the rest of the day.” To chide someone, shush them away, and then bark “The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me”. To exit in high dudgeon, say “There is an air of quiet death about this house, and I do not like how it smells”. If all this is too much to remember you could just offer to cook someone your famous mushroom omelette and then degenerate into helpless laughter.

So far so good, but you can layer your faux familiarity further. You should comment loudly on the omnipresence of Jonny Greenwood’s score and say that it puts one in mind of Shostakovich, but then of course the driving strings of Plainview’s theme in There Will Be Blood owed much to the 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, allegedly depicting Stalin’s ruthless energy. And then add in that a new note struck by Greenwood this time was the gorgeous piano cues, reminiscent of Debussy at his most gorgeous and minimal. As a feint you can feign ignorance if you think people are getting suspicious, note that you don’t fully (feign ignorance, never admit to ignorance) understand the purpose of the Clockwork Orange reference when Daniel Day-Lewis drives in the countryside at night. But then trump these sceptics by saying that this move’s ‘milkshake scene’ is surely the ‘asparagus scene’. Compare it to Pinter, compare it to Mamet, compare it to Le Carre as a joke because Day-Lewis raves about spies, and then seem to struggle to remember the words “You know that I like my asparagus cooked in butter and salt, yet you have cooked it in oil. Were the circumstances different I might be able to pretend to like it, but as they are I’m simply admiring my own gallantry for eating it in the way you prepared it.”

Now you are in the know. Go forth and bluster.

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March 22, 2016

Any Other Business: Part XI

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into an eleventh portmanteau post on television of course!

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper - The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper – The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery – Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC

The Height Manager

At first I thought The Night Manager might be a good three episode show trying to escape from a six episode run. But then, as I found myself fast-forwarding through sweeping shots apparently accompanied by mislaid John Barry Bond cues, I started to doubt that. As I started fast-forwarding through protracted suspense sequences and pointless tracking shots I thought there might be a decent movie buried trying to escape from John Le Carre’s story. As I started fast-forwarding through dialogue scenes because a piece of spy-craft involving ice creams resembled an SNL sketch I stopped thinking and just hit delete on the DVR. I will remember little in a few months of The Night Manager except how director Susanne Bier dealt with Elizabeth Debicki’s great height: never stand her directly next to Hugh Laurie or Tom Hiddleston if possible, and if they must stand beside each other, cheat. Debicki stood in bare feet next to Laurie standing in shoes, so that both were standing at the same height. And, even more farcically, Debicki walked beside Hiddleston on a steeply sloping beach, but closer to the ocean so that he appeared fractionally taller. Jed “I don’t care who sees me naked, I do care who sees me crying” Marshall brought to mind Richard Yates’ castigation of Hemingway’s Catherine Barkley as not a real character but merely a ‘high-school masturbatory fantasy’. It’s baffling that Debicki chose to slum it in such a vacuous role, but what exactly is the fuss about female directors all about when Bier so ridiculously upholds the convention of leading man looming over leading lady?

Jerk-Ass Seeley

Bones has long been a startling exemplar of decline without any obvious parallel. In its marvellous first season it was a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags delivered by complicated characters. In its current eleventh season it is an average intelligence forensics sitcom with constant average gags delivered by characters whose level of complication can be gauged by new addition FBI Agent Aubrey being defined as gourmand. Bones’ trajectory has been so consistently downhill that each season is observably slightly worse than its predecessor. Forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember social niceties and her conversation suffered from total ignorance of pop culture. By season 6 she was, so to speak, consciously unconsciously anti-social. And it’s only got worse. After 11 years of working with Seeley Booth, during which she has observed his example of what to say and how to act in nearly every conceivable circumstance, she has not only not learnt, but has regressed: becoming ruder and given to hideous attempts at humour. But a recent NSA episode, transparently about Snowden, was truly jaw-dropping. The penultimate episode of season 1 tackled the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. By contrast the NSA episode of season 11 saw Booth snarling like a deranged bear at everyone, and Hodgins deferring meekly to Booth’s party line that if you didn’t serve, you have no right to speak. Given that the leak in question was about not just illegal spy programs but an NSA hit-squad operating without Congressional oversight you have to wonder if Booth just wants all but a handful of his Army Rangers buddies disbarred from voting. After all if you didn’t serve, are you really worthy of voting on where to support the troops next? How did Bones get to this state of shocking disrepair?

MARVEL'S AGENT CARTER - "Better Angels" - Peggy's search for the truth about Zero Matter puts her on a collision course with her superiors as Howard Stark barnstorms in, on "Marvel's Agent Carter," TUESDAY, JANUARY 26 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal) HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER – “Better Angels” – Peggy’s search for the truth about Zero Matter puts her on a collision course with her superiors as Howard Stark barnstorms in, on “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” TUESDAY, JANUARY 26 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal)
HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

Agent Carter: LA Noir

“I drove across town to La Brea then straight north to Hollywood. The canyon road was narrow and winding but there was no traffic at all. We hadn’t even seen a police car on the ride and that was fine with me, because the police have white slavery on the brain when it comes to coloured men and white women.” – Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins noir novels, is set in Los Angeles in 1948. Mosley was born in 1952 and published his book in 1990, but he was interested in capturing a sense of the lived reality of black life in the era of Raymond Chandler’s PI mythologies. The second season of Agent Carter is set in Los Angeles in 1947. Except it’s not. Agent Carter is interested in the 1940s purely for set-dressing and steam-punk plotting. When black scientist Wilkes instantly hits on Peggy Carter and she reciprocates the show doesn’t hear historical accuracy alarm bells ringing. Indeed it goes out of its way to have a white guy make racist assumptions about the pair because he’s a horrible racist, and Howard Stark treats Wilkes like he would a white scientist because Stark’s a great guy. More people will casually watch Agent Carter than will actively read Devil in a Blue Dress, so surely it matters that history is being made into pigswill. And surely it matters that people will be soothed by the idea that people were always decent but a few racists made trouble, when the man who accosts Wilkes and Peggy is representative, not exceptional. Michael Portillo was told in a BBC documentary that there were no signs indicating segregation in Washington DC in the 1940s, black people just knew where they weren’t allowed: racism didn’t need to physically accost, it already had a policing voice mentally inside its victims. I can think of few more terrifying, gut-churning scenes of fiction than Easy waiting to meet DeWitt Albright and hoping upon hope that a bunch of white teenagers will not approach him, only for a white teenage girl to strike up an aimless conversation with him that nearly sees Easy lynched on the pier. It’s depressing to think that having Wilkes means Agent Carter scores a tick on the diversity checklist, regardless of the opiate ahistoricity of his use.

September 11, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s swansong as a leading man sees him play a German spymaster in Anton Corbijn’s low-key intelligence thriller.

AMWM3

Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is the harassed spymaster of a clandestine unit of German intelligence. Officially Gunther, his loyal lieutenant Irna (Nina Hoss), and Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Maximilian (Daniel Bruhl in a mystifyingly small part); the youngsters who do the physical side of operations; don’t exist, but they keep post 9/11 Hamburg safe from terrorist cells exploiting its port city porosity. Getting in their way is human rights lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams), who is attempting to get Chechen illegal immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) the fortune his despised war-lord father left in the hands of discreet banker Brue (Willem Dafoe). Gunther wants to turn Annabel, and so use both his existing mole Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi) and suspected terrorist Issa to snare the respected Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi); who Gunther suspects of covertly using Islamic charities to fund terrorism. Enter the CIA…

Rock photographer Corbijn’s first two films as director, Control and The American, were visually striking, and A Most Wanted Man has equally interesting work right from the opening when the lapping harbour water Issa emerges from becomes shifting whiskey in Gunther’s glass. Corbijn makes great use of shifting focus in a lengthy interrogation, stages a long-take on a ferry very disconcertingly, and hammers home the paranoia of surveillance with Niki and Maximilian’s constant unobtrusive tailing of suspects. The nitty-gritty procedural approach to intelligence work is always absorbing, and Robin Wright’s cameos as inveigling Company woman Martha Sullivan are nicely done. But the extended breaking of Annabel, even though it’s probably quite realistic, sucks all momentum out of proceedings. And then just when things have got properly tense again with Gunther laying a trap, the trademark le Carre letdown is sprung.

An emotionally devastating twist is casually thrown in, but screenwriter Andrew (Lantana) Bovell cannot salvage the unsatisfactory finale which, in typical le Carre style, ends not with a bang but a whimper. le Carre may have had the inside scoop on the Cold War when he started writing, but it’s been fifty years since Kim Philby blew his cover, and it’s hard to think of a profession less likely to spill new trade secrets to former members of the guild, so this can’t be le Carre giving us the real scoop on how post-9/11 intelligence works so much as le Carre giving us his own bleak weltanschauung. It is one he shares with Cormac McCarthy: storytellers who create protagonists and antagonists, place them in peril, but then, because they have no real interest in storytelling, lose interest in their creations.

A Most Wanted Man is a pretty good leading man send-off for Hoffman; particularly the poignant last image in which Hoffman walks out of shot and our lives; but its ending lets it down.

3/5

July 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part II

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for films opening in the next few months.

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was extremely successful commercially, but was a curiously mixed bag artistically. Rupert Wyatt’s direction was quite brilliant in some Hitchcockian flourishes and well-staged action sequences. But the script seemed barely written; with James Franco and Frieda Pinto playing ciphers. Andy Serkis (in motion-capture) returns as talking evolved ape leader Caesar. The world’s population having been devastated by the simian flu Caesar faces great hostility from belligerent human leader Gary Oldman, but an ally in Jason Clarke’s family man willing to talk peaceful co-existence. But peaceful co-existence don’t make for a high-stakes apocalyptic blockbuster! The focus of interest must be director Matt Reeves. Cloverfield combined spectacle with devastating emotional impact and his vampire remake Let Me In improved on the Scandinavian original. What will he fashion?

Dutch rock photographer Anton Corbijn’s third film as director seems closer in tone and look to his sophomore effort The American than stark debut Control, as he directs a John Le Carre spy thriller set in Germany. The adaptation of Le Carre’s novel comes from Lantana playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell which is almost as much an enticement as the stellar cast: Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance. The second coming of Robin Wright really is a phenomenon as worthy of attention as the McConnaissance, and this looks like another compelling performance. The late Hoffman meanwhile seems on fine form as the German spook harassing McAdams’ attorney: “I’m a lawyer” “You’re a social worker for terrorists”. Hopefully this will be better structured than the cavalier Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Yep, the teaser trailer for what will probably be one of the three biggest films of 2014 manages to not mention Katniss Everdeen, show Jennifer Lawrence’s face, or even acknowledge the existence of the previous two films. Intentionally, of course, as it’s a Capitol propaganda film with Donald Sutherland’s kindly old white-bearded President Snow sitting in a white room, flanked by Josh Hutcherson’s kidnapped Peeta, telling the people of Panem how good the Capitol is to them, and expressing bemusement as to why they would ever rebel against him. Arcade Fire’s chilling Soviet style Panem anthem has more or less for me become Donald Sutherland’s personal theme tune at this point, and it suits these words: “But if you resist the system, you starve yourself. If you fight against it, it is you who will bleed…” #OnePanem

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