Phantom Thread (2017)

2018 #221
Paul Thomas Anderson | 130 mins | 1.85:1 | download (UHD) | USA & UK / English & French | 15 / R

Phantom Thread

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is perhaps the most sought-after fashion designer in 1950s London, with a clientele that includes heiresses, countesses, and even princesses. But like many (male) geniuses, he is often prickly, exacting, tempestuous, and cold, and seemingly the only person that can withstand him for any length of time is his equally fastidious business manager — and sister — Cyril (Lesley Manville). Then Reynolds encounters guesthouse waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) and is immediately smitten, a feeling which she reciprocates, and so she is quickly integrated into his life as his newest live-in muse/lover. Although she initially seems quiet and shy, Alma is actually headstrong and tenacious, and soon the three are locked in a love/hate battle of personalities.

If that sounds melodramatic, there is an element of that to the film; and if Reynolds and Cyril’s brother/sister relationship sounds a bit odd and Gothic, well, there’s an element of that too — and that’s without even mentioning Reynolds’ obsession with his dead mother, or what goes on with some mushrooms. But if there’s one thing writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is not, it’s histrionic. Its plot may be that of a Gothic melodrama, and if it were a novel perhaps we’d class it as one, but Anderson hasn’t taken on the skin of a Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro here — in the quiet but forceful and precise way it plays out, Phantom Thread is as stringently produced as one of Reynolds’ gowns.

A happy household?

Similarly, at first glance the film may look as cold as its protagonist can be, taking place in the stark, plain-coloured corridors and rooms of his London home-cum-business, with central characters who seem pragmatic and aloof. It is primarily the arrival of Alma that reveals the truth, however, and while there are sometimes outbursts of emotion, a lot remains restrained, conveyed in glances or calmly-delivered threats. Although Day-Lewis received much of the attention and praise because, well, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis, this film truly derives its power from all three leads. It’s possible to point to scenes or moments where each shine, but the real effectiveness lies in how their characters are built up across the film.

Naturally, some credit for this lies with Anderson’s screenplay (which he reportedly wrote in collaboration with Day-Lewis, saying “he probably should have some kind of co-writing credit.”) There are many fantastic lines and dialogue exchanges — again, this might look like a staid, arty movie from the outside, but it’s alive and vibrant with wit and emotion, even if the former is all delivered very dryly and the latter is often simmering under the surface.

Anderson also deserves much credit for the look of the film. There’s no credited director of photography, because he didn’t hire one, but also because he didn’t claim to fulfil that role himself — according to IMDb, he stated that “he collaborated with and was advised by his camera operators and gaffers, since he does not have the technical expertise of a cinematographer.” The teamwork clearly paid off, because the photography is stunning. Not in a show-off, prettied-up kind of way (though there are still individual shots that are breathtaking, like this one), but just beautiful, crisp photography, which once again reminds us of the magnificence of shooting on 35mm (aided, no doubt, by the fact I watched it in UHD).

Dressmaking

All of that remains in service of the characters and their story. I’ve seen it said the film is a dual character study, and I think that’s true. Reynolds and Alma are two very particular individuals, the truth of whose characters is brought out in the way they eventually spark off each other. Their relationship and where it leads is certainly not typical, and may not be healthy, either — indeed, I think how you ultimately react to it may say as much about you and your attitude to relationships as it does the characters. I’ve certainly seen a spread of interpretations expressed online, and (without meaning to sound like I’m above it all) I can understand most of the different perspectives. Of course, being of two minds is a reaction in itself.

I’m more certain of my reaction to the film itself. Put simply, it’s the Paul Thomas Anderson film I’ve felt most engaged by since I saw my first, Magnolia, 15 or so years ago (a feeling which didn’t endure to a rewatch some years later, incidentally). Maybe I owe the rest of his filmography a second chance.

5 out of 5

Phantom Thread is available on Sky Cinema from today.

It placed 7th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Advertisements

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

2018 #153
Robert Aldrich | 128 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford star as squabbling sisters forced together by circumstance in this slice of Hollywood Gothic. Both were once famous in their own way: as a child, bratty Jane Hudson (Davis) was a huge vaudeville star as the eponymous ‘Baby Jane’; later, her level-headed sister Blanche (Crawford) became a huge star of the silver screen, where Jane struggled to make a mark, employed only as a clause of her sister’s studio contract. A tragic incident ended both their careers, leaving Blanche paralysed and Jane her carer. Decades later, resentment has made Jane casually abusive of her invalided sister — and when she discovers that Blanche has been secretly plotting a major change to their situation, things only get worse…

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane plays out as a mix of overwrought melodrama, plausible real-life horror, and mature psychological thriller. It’s really driven by the acting of the two leads. Crawford gets a less showy role, having to play it straight as the reasonable, sensible older sister, struggling to do what’s right for her sibling even as she’s mistreated. Davis, on the other hand, is allowed to cut loose. Jane starts the film batty and only gets less mentally stable from there. It’s quite an extraordinary performance from Davis, which threatens to tip over into scenery-chewing at any moment but remains compelling.

Bette Davis and her preferred co-star

The film itself is less assured. Director Robert Aldrich manages a good line in generating tension from people almost finding out what’s going on in the Hudson household, and there’s a solid final-reel twist (even if the final act in general is a bit bizarre — no spoilers, but those beach users are seriously inattentive), but the film is allowed to run longer than the material really merits. A slow burn can be used to create atmosphere, of course, but that’s not really the case here. It could do with a little more drive early on.

But maybe it’s this looseness that has allowed so many different ways of viewing the film. As well as those I’ve already mentioned — sibling melodrama, psychological thriller, unnerving horror — people have taken it as a black comedy, or a cult camp classic. Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly an experience.

4 out of 5

The TV series Feud: Bette and Joan, which dramatises the making of this film, begins a repeat run on BBC Four tonight at 10pm.

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

2018 #33
Roger Michell | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

My Cousin Rachel

Adapted from a lesser-known Daphne Du Maurier novel (previously filmed in 1952 with Olivia de Havilland, and here relocated from Cornwall to Devon to avoid comparisons to Poldark (really)), My Cousin Rachel is the story of an orphaned young man, Philip (Sam Claflin), who’s raised by his older cousin Ambrose until the latter’s health forces him to leave for Florence. There Ambrose falls in love with their cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and marries her, but shortly after dies. His final letter to Philip implies Rachel may’ve had a part in his demise. When she arrives at their estate in England, Philip is determined to confront her, but soon finds himself entranced by her, as does everyone. Is she a scheming murderess intent on using her wiles to acquire the family’s estate, or did Philip’s imagination get the better of him?

That mystery is really the heart of My Cousin Rachel, which unfurls as a classy, lightly Gothic melodrama. It’s a puzzle that’s not so much investigated as gradually hinted at, leaving the audience to make up their own mind. It certainly was successful in having me change my opinion on where it was headed multiple times. The pace is fairly leisurely, which some reviewers have found to be trying; but while it’s certainly a slow burner, for me that was part of why it worked. The passage of time and the opportunity it grants for overthinking sways Philip’s mind hither and thither, and so the film gives the viewer similar space to think, for their opinion to shift, back and forth. It makes you a part of his paranoia.

Who's playing who?

Rachel Weisz is typically excellent, delivering a finely balanced performance that is at once charming and suspicious — is Rachel simply quietly enigmatic, or she hiding a scheming and deadly nature? Sam Claflin is very effective as the hot-headed, easily-led young man at the centre of the story, exhibiting these characteristics which sell Philip’s flip-flopping opinions, which could otherwise have come across as inconsistent. You can believe their passion of each other — or, certainly, his for her — which leads to some earthy bits that might surprise anyone expecting a quaint Heritage melodrama. Thrusting among the flowers aside, the overall style does evoke those Sunday evening costume dramas (you can see why they were wary of a Poldark comparison), as does the pretty photography by DP Mike Eley — it’s not the most outright gorgeous film you’ve ever seen, but it’s a bit of a looker.

My Cousin Rachel’s unhurried storytelling may put off some viewers, but if you settle into its rhythm then it’s a paranoia-fuelled guessing game that will keep you rethinking the truth up until its closing moments.

4 out of 5

My Cousin Rachel is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Past Month on TV #13

When I started this TV coverage almost a year ago I promised short reviews, but with three major releases falling under its purview this month — plus a big crossover and the best thing that was on TV this Christmas (and sundry other bits to mention too) — I find myself with quite a bit to say…

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1)
A Series of Unfortunate EventsI’ve never read A Series of Unfortunate Events, the 13-book cycle of faux-gothic novels by Lemony Snicket that recount the terrible lives of the Baudelaire orphans as they are stalked by the scheming Count Olaf. I am, however, a verified fan / defender of the 2004 movie adaptation (I even included it in my 100 Favourites series last year) — one of few, it seemed, because the movie wasn’t a huge hit and, though it only adapted the first three of the books, no sequels were forthcoming. So I was most excited when it was announced Netflix were re-adapting the books for the small screen — and, fortunately, the new version turns out to be (aside from a few wobbles) a veritably fine drama.

The biggest of those wobbles is getting started. The series has a very particular tone and style, and that does take some getting used to. Indeed, some people will never click with it. You may well have already heard it described as “a cross between Wes Anderson and Tim Burton”, a summation which I’m afraid can’t be improved upon or reasonably substituted with another because that is precisely what it is like. If you do decide to sample the programme (assuming you haven’t already, because if you already have then any advice about what you should consider doing if you do watch it would be inherently pointless because you already have), I would recommend treating the first two episodes as a feature-length double-bill. Although delightfully structured to serve as individual segments (there’s a nice surprise at the end of episode one, even if you’re familiar with the story from other media, and a cleverly staged recap/flashback at the top of episode two), I feel like it might take the full opening story to completely settle into the tone and style the show is shooting for and — I think, on balance — hitting.

One of the big points in its favour are the scripts, which are infused with wit — not just gags in the dialogue, but at times the very structure and construction of the piece.* It also makes good repeated use of one of my favourite comedic techniques, unnecessary repetition, as well as making good comedic use of one of my repeated favourite techniques, unnecessary repetition. I suppose one might describe the style as arch, and that will not be to all tastes, but it was to mine. A lengthy sequence in episode two dedicated to explaining the difference in meaning between “literally” and “figuratively” certainly helped sway me. It’s delivered by Snicket himself, who, in the form of Patrick Warburton, regularly appears on screen to elucidate and comment upon events. I wasn’t sure of Warburton’s casting at first, but he leaves behind the kind of likeable dullards he usually plays to nail Snicket’s verbose, florid declarations and keen intelligence.

Creepy Count OlafAs Olaf, Neil Patrick Harris has the difficult task of being both comically inept and genuinely menacing, as well as appearing in any number of disguises (well, four). Opinion seems divided on whether he manages this better than Jim Carrey in the film, but, well, that’s opinions for you. Personally, I thought he was very good. The extra screen time here (what was done in 108 minutes of film is granted 299 minutes of TV) means he has to work at a different level and pace to Carrey, and I think there are multiple moments where he nails it. Similarly, some may think the child actors are guilty of vigorously flat delivery of their lines, but I think this is just another aspect of the Wes Anderson-esque style — as the viewer (and, possibly, the cast) become more accustomed to the material, so the quality of the performances (and/or the perception thereof) improves.

Another thing I want to mention is its pacing as a TV series. Netflix’s usual all-at-once release strategy encourages binge-watching, this we know, but it also encourages what I’m going to call “binge storytelling” — that is, series that are designed to be viewed in their entirety, like very long movies. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Unfortunate Events breaks this mould (it’s adapted from four novels, so not being one long story is inherent), but a viewer might naturally expect the season’s eight episodes to consequently play like four movies split into halves. Not so. Rather, it plays like a series made up of two-parters. That’s a very fine distinction, perhaps, but there is a difference. To try to explain what I’m getting at from another angle: it isn’t structured as four movies that have had to be split in two to fit the format, but as eight one-hours where each pair present a change in location and guest cast, even as several narrative threads flow across them all. See? Well, don’t worry if not. Instead, just enjoy the theme song — which changes slightly every episode, therefore encouraging that episodic viewing. I’ve found it to be a total earworm. Look away! Looook awaaay!

The sorry seafrontI think most would’ve thought A Series of Unfortunate Events was dead on screen after the film, but this series (and the reaction to it) suggests Netflix have been vindicated for deciding to revive the property. Let’s hope they have the common sense to do the right thing and commission the two more seasons needed to complete this sorry tale. In the meantime, I’m very favourably disposed to read all the books…

* Incidentally, fun game on social media / comment sections: spot the people who are utterly baffled why both screen adaptations of Unfortunate Events have treated it so comically. Seems some people didn’t get the joke when they were kids. ^

Sherlock (Series 4)
Sherlock series 4Sherlock comes to an end (for now) with another variable and divisive series. That’s actually the way it’s been received ever since the start (for all the people who think it only lost its way in the third run, there were plenty who slated various parts of it during the first and second series too), so I don’t think we should be so surprised. For my part, I enjoyed it on the whole.

Opener The Six Thatchers seems to be widely despised, though for the life of me I can’t work out why. Okay, there’s the death at the end, but that was a somewhat inevitable eventuality and it’s fairly well handled. If you’re going to write off something just because it kills off a character you like… well, you need to grow up, frankly. I’m sure that’s not the only reason there are people who dislike the episode, though. Personally I enjoyed all the espionage action stuff. Sherlock has always been about adventures rather than cases and this is surely in-keeping. Anyway, it’s not a perfect episode, but it’s certainly not worse than, say, series one’s The Blind Banker.

The Lying Detective also has its detractors, but on the whole was much better received (seems to be people who hated Six Thatchers enjoyed Lying Detective and vice versa, as a rule). Between Toby Jones’ excellent, creepy performance, the riffs and reflections of certain real news stories, and the well-done adaptation of a memorable Conan Doyle original, plus the series’ visual and narrative tricks being executed just about as well as ever, I’d actually argue it’s one of the programme’s very best episodes.

But then we come to the finale, The Final Problem, which is (if you’ll excuse the pun) a problematic tale. Bits of it work magnificently, like Moriarty’s arrival and the Molly scene, but other sections are severely lacking in logic (even allowing for the heightened world of the show) or are inert — ironically so: Sherlock, John, and Mycroft spend the middle of the episode moving, but as they’re just being led from game to game it comes to very little end. It feels like it needed a good script editor to give it a going-over and give it a clearer impetus. And as for the finale, with the magically-timed arrival of another DVD from Mary… ugh. The idea behind the final montage is nice, but why not have, say, Mrs Hudson narrate it?

Rathbone PlaceSherlock’s commitment to being a fast-paced, audience-challenging adventure drama that strives to be constantly engaging and entertaining is definitely commendable, and a welcome contrast to much of the slow, dour TV drama we tend to produce over here — even if the end result is sometimes messy or unpopular. With events in-show leaving our heroes reset to a more familiar Holmesian situation, here’s hoping the big-name cast can be tempted back for a few more adventures in a couple of years.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the LifeNine years on and Gilmore Girls graduates from being considered a twee comedy-drama on disparaged network The WB to a major cultural event, thanks to it being produced for the arbiter of all modern televisual culture, Netflix. Instead of 22 42-minute episodes of network TV we get four feature-length instalments, though it’s still very much a series: the pros and cons are shared across the board.

Pros: at its best it’s still funny, quick-witted, kooky, and sometimes even emotional. It’s a nostalgic visit to old friends, with a nice line in surprise cameos from old characters (even if you know they’re in it, most of them suddenly appear in a scene, hence “surprise”). Cons: at its worst its hero characters aren’t wholly supportable and its narrative choices come overburdened with thematic tin-eared-ness. I’ve always liked that the characters aren’t as perfect as they think they are, but I’m not sure the show knows the characters aren’t as perfect as it thinks they are. It’s hard to know exactly how deep the delusion goes: character-deep, which is kinda clever and maybe even more sophisticated than some people give the show credit for; or writer-deep, which is a little… sad? Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence it’s the latter (we’re constantly told of Rory’s prior success but see little evidence to suggest she’s actually capable of it).

Still, what the show sometimes lacks in realism (be that social or psychological) it makes up for with its fast-paced pop culture banter (not always as on display here as normal, I must say) and delightful kookiness. In the latter camp, an extended selection of songs from Stars Hollow: The Musical seems to get a lot of flack, but I thought it was a consistently amusing highlight. Yes, it’s an over-long aside from the main action, but that’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re given double-length episodes and creative freedom. Conversely, the finale goes overboard with this increased liberty.

Final four wordsBizarrest of all is the problematic ending. Thematically, A Year in the Life begins to look like it might be about moving on, new horizons, that kind of thing — indeed, I kind of expected it to end with Lorelei moving out of Stars Hollow. But the climax — the infamous final four words… well, you could see the development as a signal of a fresh start (very literally, new life), but it doesn’t play that way. Given Rory’s personal story (her career and relationships falling apart) and situation (single, living at home), it’s less a new path forward and more a depressingly regressive loop. If you’re interested in a fuller dissection of these issues, allow me to recommend this review and, in particular, this discussion at The Verge, which both have a pretty good handle on it in my opinion. And if you want a way to reconcile the early cute perfectness with the divergent behaviour of characters as the series rolls on, this fan theory from Cracked is imperfect but fun.

A Year in the Life is never Gilmore Girls at its best (there are highs, but most work thanks to “it’s fun to have them back” nostalgia), but it does reflect the show at its worst. Flawed characters are great for drama, but only if the show is aware of their flaws. Lost amongst all its zany fun, I’m not convinced Gilmore Girls actually understands its protagonists as well as it thinks it does.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Christmas seems so long ago now, doesn’t it, but it’s okay: the best thing that was on TV during the festive season isn’t all that Christmassy, and if you missed it and you’re in the UK it’s still available on iPlayer for a little while yet. If you’re outside the UK, I don’t know if there’s anywhere you can see it (legally), but it’s worth seeking out. Based on the stage show, it does what it says on the tin: it’s about an amateur production of Peter Pan that goes wrong. Farcically, hilariously wrong. It’s the kind of thing that’s far, far funnier than you feel it should be — and I know I’m not alone in saying this because it went down a storm on Twitter too. And the theatre company that originated it have several other shows — here’s hoping the BBC make them a Christmas fixture.

The Flash / Arrow / Legends of Tomorrow Invasion!
Arrowverse - Invasion!
The Arrowverse’s three-night crossover masquerading as a four-night crossover (Supergirl had one scene, which they repeated in Flash anyway) was certainly a hit for The CW in terms of ratings. Quality-wise… well, it was about on a par with the individual series as a whole, which is to be expected I suppose. It was quite neat that the episodes of Flash and Arrow managed to feel like instalments of their own show as well as part of the crossover — especially Arrow, which was also marking its 100th episode — though that was to the detriment of the overarching story: the alien threat that drove the piece was occasionally sidelined, then hurriedly wrapped-up in a frantic final episode. That last part was ostensibly an instalment of the less-popular Legends of Tomorrow, but their regulars only had a little something to do before being shoved aside in favour of characters from the more popular shows. As I don’t watch Legends anymore I can’t say it bothered me, but I almost felt bad for them. I presume there’ll be another such crossover next season, but hopefully next time they’ll fully embrace it: focus on giving adequate time to the story that brings them all together, rather than trying to concurrently maintain the series’ individuality.

Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 5 Episodes 1-3 — you can never have enough Sherlock Holmes.
  • Outnumbered 2016 Christmas Special — another contender for the best comedy of the season. I liked that it wasn’t a big-fuss return, just another vignette from the lives of the Brockmans.
  • Vicious Series Finale — conversely, this was as odd and kind-of-funny / kind-of-terrible as it always has been. A fitting way to end, then, I guess.

    Things to Catch Up On
    TabooThis month, I have mostly been missing Taboo, the BBC’s dark new period drama starring Tom Hardy and written by Steven Knight. I’m sure I’ll get round to it soon, but then I’ve been saying that about Peaky Blinders (you know, the BBC’s dark period drama written by Steven Knight and sometimes starring Tom Hardy) for years and still haven’t even started it. Its scheduling on BBC One on Saturday nights feels thoroughly at odds with how it looks (surely midweek BBC Two?), but putting a proper drama on our highest-profile channel on its highest-profile night seems to have been a popular move, so what do I know?

    120 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… Studio Ghibli’s first TV series comes to Amazon Prime… but it’s quite long and it doesn’t look that good, so I’m not sure I’ll bother.

  • Lost River (2014)

    2016 #79
    Ryan Gosling | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Lost RiverThe directorial debut of uber-hearththrob movie star Ryan Gosling is not what you might expect someone of that particular adulation to produce. It’s not just that it has a dark heart, but that it’s slow, opaque, perverted, and not easily summarisable.

    To try nonetheless: Bones (Iain De Caestecker) lives in a possibly-near-future rundown Detroit, where his mother (Christina Hendricks) is struggling to repay the loan so they can keep their house. A meeting with the bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) leads to him offering her a job at a mysterious nightclub. Meanwhile, Bones salvages copper for cash, which brings him into the orbit of vicious criminal Bully (Matt Smith). Escaping Bully’s clutches, Bones discovers an old road that leads under a lake. He learns from his neighbour, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), that there’s a town under there, which may hold the key to breaking the curse hanging over their town…

    If it’s not obvious, there’s definitely some magical realism going on in Lost River. Adult fairytale would be another term for it; there are slices of some form of Gothic, too. To put it another way, it’s definitely Lynchian. Other directors may have been an influence on Gosling as well, but it specifically brought Blue Velvet to mind for me, without in any palpable way being a clone of that movie. Nonetheless, it also engages with some very real present-day issues, like the recession, albeit in an elliptical fashion (despite the plot being about someone under threat of losing their house). Perhaps this is just a convenient way to touch of themes of family, home, and what home means (i.e. more than just a house), as well as the importance or otherwise of escaping that home, or somehow reconstituting it.

    Lake lightsIt comes to a very cathartic ending, on multiple levels. I almost didn’t realise I needed that catharsis at the end — I knew I wanted certain characters to get their comeuppance, but the load that seems to lift at the end, with all the different climaxes combined, including parts that might not seem ‘good’… well, it’s almost like Rat is right about Bones’ actions lifting a bad spell.

    On a technical level the film is superb, combining fantastic cinematography with evocative costumes, expressive sets, and an effective score. Some of the imagery is the visual equivalent of ambient mood music, as is some of the score (er, literally). That occasionally comes across as self-consciously Arty, therefore, but in the right mood or mindset it works. There are several strong performances as well: Christina Hendricks does understated desperation; Matt Smith is a credible schoolyard bully writ large; Ben Mendelsohn exudes menace as a nightclub-owner-cum-devil-incarnate; and Saoirse Ronan is marvellous in everything.

    By giving it a 4, I’m maybe being a tad generous; certainly it’s poor consumer advice, because this is a “not for everyone” film. But if I gave it a 3, I’d be underselling how much I eventually liked it. It’s certainly flawed — slow, slight, maybe pretentious, and Arty. But it also takes us to an intriguing world, toys with some interesting ideas, conveys a few memorable moments, and stuns with consistently arresting visuals. I’ll take that mix over “blandly fine” any day.

    4 out of 5

    Crimson Peak (2015)

    2016 #33
    Guillermo del Toro | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Mia Wasikowska stars opposite a British thesp best known for playing a comic book villain and a red-headed repeat-Oscar-nominee, in a Gothic drama-thriller from an acclaimed non-Anglo director? That’s a description of Stoker, Park “Oldboy” Chan-wook’s modern-Gothic chiller that co-starred Matthew “Watchmen” Goode and Nicole “The Hours” Kidman, which I awarded a five-star review and a place in my top ten last year. It’s also a description of Crimson Peak, Guillermo “Pan’s Labyrinth” Del Toro’s classic-Gothic chiller that co-stars Tom “Thor” Hiddleston and Jessica “Zero Dark Thirty” Chastain, which struggled to find an audience in cinemas last year. That last fact has often been attributed to its marketing, which I presume was as a horror movie (I never watched any of the trailers). It’s understandable the studio went for that, though: they know how to sell horror, but Crimson Peak is actually something more uncommon.

    If you’ve not at least heard of The Castle of Otranto then there’s a chance your expectations of Crimson Peak may be misaligned. Which is not to say you won’t like it, especially if you’re of an open-minded disposition, but if having heard it’s “Gothic” and a “horror movie” has conjured up something Hammer-esque in your mind, then you are indeed off base. I think most people hear “Gothic” and automatically extrapolate “Gothic horror”, at least as far as movies are concerned. Crimson Peak isn’t a Gothic horror, though — at least, not in the Hammer sense — but rather a Gothic Romance, which is as distinct from “horror” as it is from “romance”. Perhaps “Gothic melodrama” would be a term better suited to today’s audiences. OK, maybe not — frankly, it’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which a movie of this kind generates big bucks at the box office unless you somehow made one that features a comic book character beating the crap out of the cast every 20 minutes.

    The story actually concerns Edith Cushing (Wasikowska), a well-to-do businessman’s daughter in upstate New York who is occasionally haunted by ghosts. She falls for visiting English gent Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and, long story short, moves with him and his haughty sister Lucille (Chastain) back to their crumbling — literally — pile in the English countryside. The house hides many secrets, and ghosts, too. Having said it’s not a horror movie, it would be unfair to class Crimson Peak as simply a tame drama — as you’d expect from writer-director Guillermo del Toro, those ghosts can be bleedin’ scary, and there are certainly a smattering of good old fashioned jumps to boot.

    If you start reading online (the ones I read, at any rate), you tend to find people either: a) thought there weren’t enough ghosts, or b) thought there were too many ghosts. And there’s an element of truth in this: the horror bits are a little bit too horror-genre for a Gothic romance/melodrama, but they’re undoubtedly not in it enough to transform it into a full Horror movie. Someone with the predilection to enjoy both is required to stomach the film, which I must say I am, and I dare say Del Toro would fit that bill also. It seems clear that he’s made exactly the film he wanted to make; it’s just unfortunate that turned out to be a tricky sell, and consistently misunderstood by a mainstream audience. (I say “mainstream audience” because you can find an abundance of comments on film-fan websites noting how it was incorrectly marketed, etc.) That said (minor spoiler here), it’s stated in the film itself that the ghosts are a metaphor. OK, it’s stated by Edith about the story she’s writing, but you don’t need a degree in Film Studies to realise this is meant as a meta-comment on the film as well. Or maybe you do.

    Whatever one’s thoughts on the story and tone of the film, it can’t be denied that its technical merits are extraordinary. Every inch of the design work is gloriously imagined, and the cinematography — the lighting in particular — is spectacular. And that gigantic house set…! And the climactic ‘limbo’ set, too — incredible work. (That’s not a spoiler, incidentally: it was the set’s nickname, not its literal location.) The ghost effects are excellent too — original, creepy, and executed in a way that blurs the lines between make-up, animatronics, and CGI. It’s a shame the film as a whole wasn’t better received, because I imagine that’s all that held it back from numerous awards-season nods.

    Crimson Peak is exactly the kind of film that, on reflection, I may wind up liking even more than I do now. Perhaps others will feel the same and it will also gain better standing in assessments of the director’s filmography — even as it is, it’s definitely one of my favourite Del Toro films (though I really need to give Pan’s Labyrinth another go, to see if I can see what all the fuss is about this time). The film’s tagline was simply “Beware”, but perhaps the viewer needs to be warned instead to “be prepared” — if you know what you’re getting in to, I think Crimson Peak has a lot to recommend it.

    4 out of 5

    Crimson Peak premieres on Sky Cinema (including via Now TV) tomorrow, Sunday 17th July.

    Stoker (2013)

    2015 #162
    Park Chan-wook | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

    Director Chan-wook “Oldboy” Park makes his English-language debut with this modern-Gothic thriller from the pen of Wentworth “yes, the guy from Prison Break” Miller.

    When well-to-do architect Richard Stoker dies on his daughter’s 18th birthday, he leaves said insular daughter India (Mia “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland” Wasikowska) stuck in their Tennessee mansion with her unbeloved mother (Nicole “the face behind the nose” Kidman). At the wake, both are surprised by the arrival of Charlie (Matthew “Ozymandias” Goode), Richard’s brother who Evelyn has never met and India has never even heard of. Nonetheless, he’s all charm and good manners, though when he moves into their home he begins to build up a slightly creepy relationship with Evelyn, and essentially stalks India. The Stokers’ housekeeper clearly knowns something about him, but then she disappears; and Richard and Charles’ Aunt Gwendolyn turns up wanting a word with Evelyn. Just what is going on with Uncle Charlie that everyone apart from India seems to know about?

    And I’ve already said too much, maybe. Stoker isn’t all about its mystery and its twists — it’s at least as much about its carefully constructed Gothic mood; but part of that is the mystery, so, y’know. Indeed, it’s so moody and atmospheric that it seems to turn some viewers off. It’s certainly not thrill-a-minute, and it has a very particular pace and tone. I’m going to keep coming back to the word Gothic, because that really is the best word for it; whether that should be “modern Gothic” or “neo-Gothic” or “Southern Gothic” or what, I don’t know, but it’s definitely Gothic — with little more than cosmetic changes, I’m sure the story could be shunted back to a crumbling pile in 19th Century England. So precise is the mood of this secluded household, it’s kind of weird when, a little while in, we get to see India’s place of education: a typical US high school. In another film I might call this sudden change of locale a misstep, a breaker of tone, but in the world Park has created it just feels like a point of contrast.

    Visually, Stoker is peerless. It doesn’t scream “beauty” at you, but the shot composition, Chung-hoon Chung’s photography, and Nicolas De Toth’s editing are all exceptional. The sound design is incredible too, with judicious use of ultra-heightened effects to imitate India’s skill for hearing small things others maybe miss. Finally, the music is perfection. A piano duet composed by Philip Glass is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, but Clint Mansell offers a doom-laden score, of a piece with his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain (both of which I think I’ve written of my admiration for sometime previously), and there are some choice songs too: I’d never heard Summer Wine by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood before, but it fits the film like a glove, as well as being fantastic in its own right; and Emily Wells’ Becomes the Color slugs in with a kind of perfect dissonance to the musical style to that point. A comment on iCheckMovies used the word “sumptuous” for all of this, and that seems apt.

    I have a feeling “not for everyone” may be one of the most overused phrases on this blog, but, if so, I think that’s for good reason: some of the best movies are “not for everyone”. We may not agree on what those movies are, but that’s kind of the point: they fit our own individual tastes, not “everyone’s”. Stoker undoubtedly doesn’t have easy mass appeal — it’s got a 6.9 on IMDb — and even some people open to its charms deem it to only be style over substance. I don’t think it’s wholly lacking in the latter, though if you’re looking for some Significance then I don’t know if you’ll find it — it’s an artistically-made Gothic thriller, not a soul-bearing artistic portrait of humanity. And as for the style… well, I’ve already talked about that. Whether you can have “style” for style’s sake, or whether it needs to be in aid of something, is a debate for another day. Here, it is in aid of something: amping up the Gothicism of the inherently Gothic story, which in other hands could have just became any-old present-day-set family thriller.

    Describing something as “an acquired taste” might well be another phase I’ve used often, especially as it’s essentially a synonym for “not for everyone”. Nonetheless, that’s what I’ll go for here. Stoker will most decidedly not appeal to all palates, but for the right viewer, it’s a dark, moody, sensuous, Gothic delight.

    5 out of 5

    The UK TV premiere of Stoker is on Film4 tomorrow, Friday 30th, at 9pm.

    It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

    Shutter Island (2010)

    2015 #73
    Martin Scorsese | 138 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Shutter IslandAdapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane (whose work also inspired Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone), the fourth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio stars the latter as US Marshal Edward Daniels, who in 1954 is dispatched with this new partner (Mark Ruffalo) to the Ashecliffe facility on the titular island, a prison/hospital for violent, mentally ill criminals run by Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow), where one of the patients has disappeared from her locked room. Her presumed escape seems to be impossible, the staff are remarkably unhelpful, and Daniels has a theory about something much darker and more sinister being conducted on the island… Naturally there’s an almighty twist, which will either keep you guessing or you’ll spot early on so you can brag about how you thought it was very predictable in order to make yourself look big and clever on online comment sections (because that works).

    In fairness, the twist — or, at least, key elements of it — are fairly guessable if you’re playing that game. Equally, the film leaves enough doors of possibility open that if you set your heart on one answer (even the right one) then you’re perhaps being a bit blinkered and not indulging in the fun of being strung along by a well-built mystery. And as I always say, most twists are only “predictable” if you predicted the right thing. The mystery certainly kept me engrossed and guessing. I did suspect certain things that turned out to be correct, but there were enough other possibilities floating around that I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs waiting for the reveal.

    US MarshalsBesides, the film has other delights beyond being an elaborate guessing game. One of the things Lehane set out to do in his novel was write “a gothic”, and Scorsese and co have taken that ball and run with it. It’s overflowing with a fantastic atmosphere: unsettling, creepy, chilling, horror-movie scary when needed (some sequences are properly hair-raising); truly gothic-feeling. Every aspect of filmmaking — the direction, the photography, the editing, the sets and locations, the music — work in harmony to create a coherent mood.

    To single out two, it’s gorgeously shot by Robert Richardson. There are a couple of dream sequences that are a show-off for that kind of thing, but it’s true more widely, the storm-bedevilled island presenting a rewardingly overcast palette. There are instances of what one might call dodgy green screen… but, combined with the continuity-troubled editing, I sense it may’ve been a conscious choice to enhance the disquieting sensation (the editing is certainly deliberate — that some commenters seem to believe Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker could make so many basic errors is bizarre).

    The second is the music, put together by Robbie Robertson. Scorsese and Robertson decided against a traditional score, instead choosing to compile fragments of other works (many of them anachronistic) and chop them up in different ways. It’s probably to Robertson’s credit that it doesn’t feel like a jukebox soundtrack; indeed, I assumed it did have a fully composed score, and really rather liked parts of it.

    Thoughtful LeoAnd then, after Scorsese and co have done their best to shred your nerves, in the final half-hour the pathos is immense. Quite without realising it had brought me to that point, I had a tear in my eye. This is in part thanks to some great performances, though you do need to reach the twist to fully appreciate them. Everyone reveals more levels once you know it, and indeed it’s clear a great amount of effort went into ensuring re-watchability — that if you view it again knowing the answers, you can spot things; not clues, per se, but elements in the performance, the design, the staging, that tie in to the reveal.

    DiCaprio has the showiest performance, though he never goes too far with it — it’s resolutely plausible at all times. Ruffalo may give the best turn of them all, in retrospect — if you watch it a second time (or, for a quick fix, check out the clip-laden making-of documentaries where they discuss the acting), you can really see what he’s doing. Kingsley, too, who without changing his performance is both threatening and kindly.

    Incidentally, reviews criticise the brevity of the documentaries on the Blu-ray, but with over half-an-hour of content they could be considerably worse, and they’re quite focused — I learnt a lot from them. No, you’re not getting a scene-by-scene breakdown like you would in an audio commentary, and there’s minimal detail on the usual moviemaking details, but there’s a solid overview of the film’s themes and how they were translated to the screen.

    All is not as it seemsI think the more you let Shutter Island percolate after it’s over, the better it becomes. Solving the mystery and guessing at the twists occupies so much of your time on a first viewing that you almost miss the details in the characters and the world, but they build up nonetheless. There’s layers and depth here, and a plausibly realistic depiction (even according to an expert) of something that’s incredibly hard to depict in fiction. You can view Shutter Island as just an atmospheric gothic mystery chiller, and as that it’s a quality piece of work, but it’s the extra depth that mark it out as, actually, a great movie.

    5 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of Shutter Island is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

    Shutter Island placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

    Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

    2012 #4
    Patrick Tatopoulos | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | New Zealand & USA / English | 18 / R

    Underworld: Rise of the LycansIt never seems to have been fashionable to admit to liking Underworld, the 2003 urban-Gothy-fantasy-actioner about vampires vs werewolves (here, Lycans) in the modern day, but I’ve always quite enjoyed it. It’s far from perfect, that’s for certain, but it has a kind of style-over-substance charm that I quite enjoy.

    The 2006 sequel, Underworld: Evolution, is very much Part 2 of the story, but moves away from the urban settings to an array of more traditional Eastern European forests (albeit shot in Canada, I believe) and increasingly intricate myth-based storytelling. But still with guns. It’s also more full of creature makeup and gore (enough to bump the certificate to an 18 after the first film’s 15), and it’s not as good — Underworld may not be wholly groundbreaking (there’s a fair dose of The Matrix in there), but it felt less familiar than its sequel.

    This third film is a whole different kettle of fish. With the first film’s dangling story pretty much wrapped up by the sequel (there’s room for more, but the main thrust is done with), this entry jumps back in time several hundred years for an origin of sorts, fleshing out flashbacks and backstory from the first two films. Unfortunately, we learnt pretty much all we needed to know in those flashbacks, and so in terms of both story and world-building Rise of the Lycans has little to add to the Underworld franchise. I suppose you could treat it in the style George Lucas wants us to take the Star Wars prequels and watch it before the first two films, but I don’t think it really fits there either — Scary Michael Sheenbeing set in medieval/dark ages times, this has a very different, more traditional feel than the urban original film… albeit with lashings of CGI.

    In fact, it probably has most in common with the cycle of fantasy films we’ve received post-Lord of the Rings. There’s swooping shots of towering castles, werewolf armies storming the walls, over-designed armour, all that kind of stuff. It makes for passable fare, and I suppose if you watched it before the other two films you might be surprised with where the story ultimately goes. That said, the one twist aside — and it’s the kind of twist the studio would only have allowed a modern filmmaker to get away with because it was established in the backstory of another film — everything’s pretty standard and predictable, just with more (CG) blood and gore than you’d normally find (I’m surprised they didn’t push to bring it down to PG-13 territory).

    The cast is led by two supporting actors from the preceding films, Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. Nighy hams it up exquisitely, but placing him centre stage makes it a mite less fun than it was in the past. Sheen brings quality to any part and we get no less here. Rhona Mitra, being the franchise’s obligatory ass-kicking-girl (replacing Kate Beckinsale, whose character comes in to play much later in the fictional world’s timeline), is fine. I’ve seen an awful lot worse.

    Camp Bill NighyIn the director’s chair for the first (and, to date, last) time is special effects whizz Patrick Tatopoulos, who does a fine job of producing an action-fantasy film. There’s nothing remarkable about it but it largely works, though it’s a little bit on the dark side at times. I don’t know why so many films do this, incidentally — we’ve reached an era where people are mostly watching films in cinemas where the bulbs are under-lit to save money, or at home in probably less-than-ideal conditions, with various lights on and a screen left on factory settings. I wouldn’t mind if these dark movies looked fine once you were properly calibrated, but most of them are still ever so dark. Why do they think this is a good idea? Especially when you flick into 3D (which, fortunately, this film was just ahead of.)

    But I digress. If you’re the kind of fantasy fan who was switched off by the urban antics of the first Underworld, this more traditional swords-and-monsters effort may appeal to your sensibilities. Otherwise, it’s really one for franchise devotees only, telling a tale you’ll know in a bit more detail. And for that, it’s not bad.

    3 out of 5

    The fourth film in the series, Underworld: Awakening, which picks up the story twelve years after the end of the second film, is in cinemas in the UK and US from today.

    Doctor Faustus (1967)

    2010 #23
    Richard Burton & Nevill Coghill | 92 mins | DVD | PG

    Despite the numerous film versions of the Faust story, this is the only one that adapts Christopher Marlowe’s A-level-favourite 1588 play. It’s a shame, then, that it’s heavily edited from the original text and, despite also being a filmed version of the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s 1966 stage production, has clearly been inappropriately chosen as a vehicle for then-couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

    Burton plays a suitably reverent version of Faustus, though is never less than able to convey his varied moods, from confidence, often underscored with insecurity, to repentant regret, to childish tomfoolery. Stuck with numerous long speeches, however, there are occasions when his delivery — and consequently the film — slip briefly into insomnia-curing monotony.

    Meanwhile, the play’s lack of a significant female role makes Elizabeth Taylor’s presence rather unusual. Marlowe’s text has been tweaked to allow Taylor to crop up frequently as ‘Helen of Troy’. As well as appearing in original scenes that feature Helen, co-writers/directors Burton and Nevill Coghill have inserted her into any scene that would allow it. Such casting across several inconsequential roles, some not even in the original text, effectively creates a new character. Perhaps this adds an extra dimension to Faustus and his goals — attempting to imply a romantic angle — but it comes across as a desperate and unwarranted attempt to make this a Burton/Taylor film.

    Elsewhere, Burton and Coghill’s vision of Faustus is stylistically reminiscent of a Gothic Hammer Horror, which is either wholly inappropriate or an ingenious genre mash-up — after all, such a genre-mashing trick has been pulled many a time with Shakespeare over the years. There are repulsively horrific corpses, a harem of naked ladies, an array of special effects, plus a medieval-styled gothic atmosphere to all the sets and costumes, though the scene where Faustus mucks about with the Pope feels more Carry On. Using inanimate objects in the roles of the Good and Evil Angels — respectively, a statue of Christ and a skull — is a small but inspired touch.

    These aside, there’s a surprising emphasis on special effects: a skeleton that turns into a rotting corpse (click the link at your own discretion); skulls that pour imagined gold and pearls from their mouths; cuckold horns that retreat into nothing; and so on. One might think this is purely to buoy up the Elizabethan language for a wider audience, and one isn’t necessarily wrong, but considering Elizabethan theatre-goers enjoyed their gory effects as much as modern audiences clearly do, their inclusion isn’t incongruous. There’s certainly some visually impressive stuff on show, much of it suitably horrific — one often wonders about the PG certificate.

    An even greater deviation than the effects is how much has been cut out — in a word, loads. Most of the comic scenes are gone (some of their humour wouldn’t translate today, making those a wise excision, but others are missed), and much of what Faustus does during his 24 extra years on Earth is missing too. Some of the cut scenes are among the most easily-enjoyed parts of the play, though would certainly lighten the tone. Perhaps they just didn’t have any money left for the further special effects required. The trims extend as far as the final scene, which also loses some of the play’s best bits. It’s unlikely anyone unfamiliar with the play would notice the omissions (having not read it for a good few years there weren’t many I missed), but returning to the text after seeing the film I realised how disappointing some of the cuts were.

    Perhaps they were designed to focus the film more closely on the Faustus/Mephistopheles relationship, perhaps just to heighten the presence of Helen by losing scenes she couldn’t have been shoehorned into; but in the process it both loses some of the best material and destroys any hope the film had of being a definitive filmed version of the play. Ultimately, such oversights proved to be the final straw for the film’s already-tenuous grip on a three-star rating.

    2 out of 5