Category: American Independents

You Were Never Really Here (UK-France-US 2017)

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe

For just her fourth feature in eighteen years, Lynne Ramsay has again opted for a literary adaptation after Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). She has worked on several other projects in between her finished features but has walked out or been pushed out of many of her starts – she is a woman who knows what she wants and won’t be coerced into anything she doesn’t want to do. You Were Never Really Here won the screenplay prize at Cannes and the best actor prize for Joaquin Phoenix, despite Ramsay’s contention that the film was not ‘completed’. The film now on release is 90 minutes long and the Cannes cut was 85 minutes.

It’s ironic that a ‘visual director’ like Ramsay (who trained first as a photographer) should be interested in stories first published as novels or novellas/short stories such as You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames. But then perhaps Lynne Ramsay is interested in finding a visual world to convey what I imagine to be the inner world of the protagonist Joe as presented in the original. If so she has certainly achieved her aim along with her collaborators – principally Thomas Townend as her cinematographer, Joe Bini as editor and Jonny Greenwood as music composer. All three were also with Ramsay on We Need to Talk About Kevin (Townend was the DoP for the Spanish shoot on that film).

Joe with his mother (played by Judith Roberts)

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe as a shambling hulk whose heavy beard and unkempt appearance belies his abilities as an enforcer/protector. His body carries the scars which perhaps represent his internal sufferings. He has just finished a job in Cincinatti and when he returns to New York the first clues to a possible unravelling of his business appear. Joe suffers flashbacks which reveal traumas from his time in the Army in the Gulf and in the FBI as well as earlier memories of abuse by his father. All the traumas involve memories of children or teenagers who have been killed or damaged. We are in no doubt that Joe’s next job, to find and rescue the teenage daughter of a politician believed to have been taken to act as a young prostitute in a brothel, is something he will be committed to completing successfully. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to observe that Joe has to deal with a spiralling chaos of events. This is a very violent film – many people are killed. But Lynne Ramsay is not interested in the acts of violence as such, more their effect on Joe himself. His weapon of choice is usually a ball-pein hammer. Townend’s camera is often close to Joe, framing parts of his body. Shallow focus blurs the lights of the night-time city. We cannot be distant observers because we are often dragged into the fray. If you are squeamish like me, you may find the explorations of Joe’s punished body too painful to watch. The young Russian-American actor Ekaterina Samsonov is excellent as the young woman Joe rescues.

Joe with Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov)

Several critics have made references to the film as a modern take on Scorsese/Schrader’s classic Taxi Driver (US 1976). It’s not hard to see why. Martin Scorsese, his cinematographer Michael Chapman and composer Bernard Herrmann produced a film that was as aesthetically powerful as that of Ramsay/Townend/Greenwood trio. In addition both films feature an army veteran, a young prostitute and a politician in New York City. But the films are actually quite different in terms of both aesthetics and plot even if they have a similar impact on audiences. Ramsay’s use of flashbacks and fantasy/dream sequences creates a different tone to that of Taxi Driver.

Lynne Ramsay on set with Joaquin Phoenix

You Were Never Really Here is such a ‘rich text’ in terms of camerawork, sound, mise en scène and performance that I need to see it again before making other comments. I’d like to congratulate Film 4, BFI and the French company Why Not Productions for having faith in Lynne Ramsay, one of the UK’s most talented and committed filmmakers. I hope she gets another worthwhile project underway whenever she’s ready to commit herself again.

Here’s Lynne Ramsay talking about the film on Film 4:

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I, Tonya (US 2017)

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a teenager when she first meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), photos courtesy of NEON and 30WEST.

I went into this screening with no expectations and came out wondering exactly what I’d seen. I remembered the furore about the figure skater Tonya Harding and her rival Nancy Kerrigan back in 1994 but I was unaware of how it had been covered in the US media. My immediate reaction to the film was that Tonya got a ‘bum rap’ from the authorities, but since the film begins by telling us that it is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews, I don’t know if this is a reasonable position or not. I will say that Margot Robbie as Tonya gives an amazing performance. Allison Janney as her mother gives the kind of performance you expect from a great character actor.

Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney)

For anyone who doesn’t know the background to the story, Tonya Harding in the late 1980s was a working-class girl who had shown genuine skating talent from the time she was a toddler and as an older teenager she was clearly a major talent with athleticism and a real drive to succeed. Aged 14 she was 6th in the American Championships in 1985 and a year later 2nd in the Skate America international competition. But from the start Harding felt she was treated unfairly because of her working-class background and for the next eight years she struggled to gain credibility even when she won or was well-placed in major international competitions. In 1994 she was charged, along with her ex-husband, his friend and two hired thugs that they had attacked Harding’s rival Kerrigan. Harding maintained she didn’t know about the physical attack but she confessed to the charge that she subsequently conspired to hinder the prosecution of the attackers. The whole series of events became a tabloid sensation in the US and when Harding was sentenced she received what amounted to a lifetime ban from skating.

Tonya becomes the first American woman to perform a successful ‘triple axel’

Given the coverage at the time, anyone over 40 in America today knows the story and younger audiences must be similarly aware: Wikipedia informs me that there have been several TV documentaries as well as a play and a musical plus references/spoofs in other entertainment media. Why then should you be interested in this new film? The first reason may well be Margot Robbie’s performance. The Australian actor is 5′ 6”. Tonya Harding is 5′ 1″. Robbie is not a look-a-like stand-in but she is convincing in ageing from 15 to 47. Much of the performance requires world-class skating (and Harding was one of the strongest athletic skaters around). The filmmakers (Robbie was also a producer on the film directed by another Australian, Craig Gillespie) managed to use CGI, literally drawing on Harding’s routines, but even so it is a tour de force by Robbie.

Jeff, Tonya and her trainer Diane (Julianne Nicholson) are approached by a police officer with a report of an anonymous threat

The key to the film’s approach is the choice of ‘mockumentary’ and reality TV as an aesthetic mode, so we are offered ‘straight to camera’ comments by the principals as if they were being  interviewed today (i.e. Robbie is aged to 47). During the historical narrative, the same principals will also turn to the camera and offer observations on the scene as it is unfolding. Several reviews reference Scorsese’s presentation of Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) and that’s not a bad shout in terms of the use of music and voiceovers. I’m not a fan of reality TV and though I found some scenes amusing, I was also saddened to see a life marked by domestic violence that is played for laughs. I thought that the array of characters were exaggerated grotesques – only then to discover from the photographs at the end in the credits sequence that at least the actors did look like the real players in this biopic. The mockumentary tropes also get in the way of the other genre features which interest me more. I, Tonya is a sports movie of a specific kind. In the Guardian Anne Billson offers a useful piece in which she points out that the film deals with a sport in which women are not competing in a ‘man’s world’ and therefore we can enjoy a different kind of sports narrative. Billson also offers us brief descriptions of several other sports stories with female leads to underpin her argument, including the Drew Barrymore-Ellen Page film Whiplash (US 2014), which would make an interesting comparison for film students.

Ice skating is one of those sports with a relatively ‘niche’ following of devoted fans, but which occasionally produces a celebrity figure with wide appeal. The Winter Olympics is always a high point and this year it was the Canadian ice-dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, three-time gold medallists who wowed a Canadian public who seemingly want the couple to marry. On the same day as I, Tonya‘s release, The Ice King, a documentary about John Curry, the supreme ice-dancer from the 1970s also opened in UK cinemas – unfortunately overshadowed by the American film. Skating fans will no doubt seek it out on DVD or online.

There are several distinct features of skating as a sport. One is difficulty of access and the funding for equipment and training. Entertainment features tend to gloss over this. So, while I, Tonya makes jokes about abuse and the costumes that Tonya and her mother sew at home, it doesn’t represent the very real struggle to compete without adequate funds. The conservative attitudes of the administrators of American skating create another barrier to success. A sport like skating is in one sense linked to equestrian sports in the UK in terms of funding, access and potential class conflict. But in North America they might be linked to geographical isolation and small town communities. I, Tonya is odd in not exploring Harding’s home context in Portland, Oregon. I assumed at first that the Hardings were in the South (and the film was shot almost entirely in Georgia, supported by that state’s film commission). It also misses a trick in not exploring more of Nancy Kerrigan’s background (which may be down to permissions). Kerrigan was also from a working-class background in a small town north of Boston. She wasn’t a privileged skater, though in ideological terms her career success could be seen as the result of ‘hard work’ and ‘family support’ – factors difficult for Tonya Harding to draw on for various reasons.

I, Tonya is a well-made film with some great performances and I was certainly engaged throughout. It does give a sense of the impact of celebrity and tabloid sensationalism as it began to be used on cable TV news in North America, but it misses out on a real story about sport, class and gender. Harding’s life after her conviction could be the basis for a whole new narrative but in I, Tonya it is just a relatively brief coda.

Here is the trailer. It hints at the extensive use of popular songs on the soundtrack, which includes Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’ and Chicago’s ’25 or 6 to 4′ plus Doris Day and a host of familiar 70s and 80s stuff.

GFF18 #14: The Bigamist (US 1953)

Harry (Edmond O’Brien), Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) and Eve (Joan Fontaine) discuss the possibility of adoption.

The final screening in the Ida Lupino retrospective again proved to be a fascinating production and an absorbing film. I’m indebted to the excellent detailed study of Lupino’s work on the Cinema Scope website by Christoph Huber for some of the insights explored here. After The Hitch-Hiker was a sleeper hit (earning over $1 million dollars) Lupino was persuaded by her partners at The Filmakers, against her best instincts, to end the link with RKO and distribute The Bigamist independently. Although by all accounts they promoted the film well, it failed at the box office and sent The Filmakers into a decline it never recovered from. That’s a shame because The Bigamist is definitely worth seeing and we were able to watch a 35mm restoration by UCLA. I understand that some of the other films from The Filmakers are now in the public domain and only exist on poor quality video transfers.

Phyllis (Ida Lupino) and Harry (Edmond O’Brien) meet on the bus trip round ‘ the homes of the Hollywood stars’.

The Bigamist is an example of how Ida Lupino managed to bring elements of film noir to bear on a social issue/problem film. The plot involves a couple, Harry (Edmond O’Brien) and Eve (Joan Fontaine) who want to adopt a child. An agency is pleased to help them and Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) sets out to investigate whether the couple will be good parents. Jordan is a complex character drawing on Gwenn’s signature role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947. He appears avuncular (he was 75 when the film came out) but also sharp as a tack when it comes to checking out a prospective parent. He follows Harry, a travelling salesman, from San Francisco to Los Angeles where he corners him and extracts a story, told in flashback in the best film noir style. Eve is the wife and Ida Lupino herself is Phyllis, the woman in another city who Harry turns to from loneliness. I don’t really need to say any more, except that Lupino handles the narrative with great skill and cleverly allows for an ‘open ending’ when the two women meet after the court hearing.

Harry presented in long shot ‘alone in the city’. This is just after Harry has attempted to make perhaps the most difficult phone call he’s ever made.

What I found fascinating was that Lupino injects a real sense of disturbance through Mr. Jordan’s investigation. Innocent actions by Harry can take on different meanings and eventually he will be ‘betrayed’. Lupino plays her part very well and she gives it a tone of the innocent young woman caught up in a film noir story. She knew all about that from her own acting career. She was 35 when she made the picture but feels younger. Having said that she has a mature woman’s playful response to Harry’s attempted pickup. Joan Fontaine is also well cast as Eve, unable to have children, super-efficient at building a business with Harry and concerned about her own parents. Harry’s actions are stupid perhaps, but not malicious. He tries to do his best for both women and that’s why it is oddly satisfying that we are denied a ‘resolution’. In the central role, Edmond O’Brien is very good indeed.

The Bigamist looks good and that’s probably down to the partnership of Ida Lupino as director and George Deskant as cinematographer. Deskant had been behind the camera at RKO since 1946 and he’d worked with Lupino, shooting On Dangerous Ground (1951) and another title from The Filmakers, Beware, My Lovely (1952). After The Bigamist he moved into TV – like Lupino herself and I think he must have shot several of the many TV episodes Ida Lupino directed. I suspect too that others from The Bigamist crew followed her into TV. Christoph Huber adds another twist, reporting that Lupino and Deskant decided to use a different camera crew for Eve’s and Phyllis’s scenes. I confess I’m not sure what this achieved. The other strange set of links about The Bigamist concerns Collier Young. His marriage to Lupino had ended in 1951 and in 1952 he married Joan Fontaine. Ida Lupino thus found herself directing her ex-husband’s new wife in a film he produced and for which he provided the original story and even took a bit part in a scene featuring Lupino. The landlady of the apartment house where Phyllis lives is played by Joan Fontaine’s mother Lilian. In one sense it sounds like a bewildering experience for Lupino yet I think it demonstrates how organised and disciplined she must have been. The result is a tight 80 minute feature with not a frame wasted. It’s not surprising that Ida Lupino was so prolific in directing episodes of TV series from 1956 until the late 1960s (during which time she also acted on TV). One other aspect of The Filmakers work that is interesting is an early embracing of product placement in The Bigamist – a clever way to make some extra money. I didn’t notice it until I found it mentioned in a useful Cineaste piece by Dan Georgakas (Vol XXV No. 3 June 2000).

I’m now on a search for more Ida Lupino films – those she directed and those she acted in. Thanks Glasgow FF!

GFF18 #11: The Hitch-Hiker (US 1953)

On Wednesday 28th February Scotland was given a Red warning of heavy snow. I was due to go home but found all the trains cancelled. Most of the Film Festival venues closed as Glasgow went into lock-down. But even snow storms can have a silver lining and next day, aware I couldn’t get home, I turned up at GFT to discover that the afternoon shows were on and that I would be able to see more of Ida Lupino’s in the festival’s centenary retrospective.

Ida Lupino was always frustrated under contract at Warner Brothers and in 1948 she set up her own production company, ‘Emerald Productions’ (referring to her mother’s stage name) with partners including producer Collier Young who she married in 1948. Later the company was renamed as ‘The Filmakers’ (sic). During suspensions by Warner Bros for refusing parts, she had learned as much as she could about directing and become an admirer of the tough guy directors like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman. The Hitch-Hiker is one of the seven films that Lupino directed (two of them uncredited) between 1949 and 1954. Her later directing career took her into television, apart from one more film in 1966. Ida Lupino became known as a director who belonged to a modernist school of pre-New Wave auteurs. On a practical level her independent films were all short (70-80 minutes) and made quickly on low budgets of less than $200,000. The Hitch-Hiker lasts just 71 minutes – none of them wasted. It’s a cracker! Made as a co-production with RKO, the film benefits from some well-known RKO department heads including Nicholas Musuraca as cinematographer (one of the great film noir creatives) and C. Bakaleinikoff as music director (again a noir expert). Lupino and Young (now divorced) wrote the screenplay, though IMDb also lists Daniel Mainwaring (writer of Out of the Past and many more noirs) as an uncredited writer. The original story came from Robert Joseph. Mainwaring was one of the writers to suffer from the blacklist – which Lupino didn’t recognise.

Director Ida Lupino on set with Edmond O’Brien (left) and William Talman

The short running time for a film with so much creative talent working on the production is partly attributable to the difficulties Lupino faced with the subject matter. She decided to make a film based on a ‘true crime’ story about the serial killer Billy Cook who was in San Quentin awaiting execution. Lupino visited him there and arranged the rights to his story, planning a film which sounds something like In Cold Blood (1967), the film based on Truman Capote’s ‘faction’ novel. For various reasons, including problems with the production code, the final screenplay changed names and story elements but under Lupino’s direction still retained a documentary, or at least a ‘procedural’ feel. The killer, renamed Emmett Myers, is first seen in California, killing a couple who had offered him a lift and then similarly despatching a travelling salesman and taking his car. When that breaks down he again hitches a ride but this time doesn’t immediately kill the two men on a fishing trip but, holding them at gun-point, forces them to drive him down through Mexico. At some point they know he will kill again. Lupino shows only the killer’s feet and very brief shots of the victims in a swift opening to the narrative before we settle in to the psychological play between the three central characters.

In one of his psychological ploys, the killer forces one of his hostages (Frank Lovejoy) to shoot a can out of his friend’s hand

As the killer, Lupino and Young cast William Talman (who later became well-known as the DA always defeated in court by Perry Mason on TV). Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy were cast as the two hostages. O’Brien was an excellent character actor who appeared again for Lupino in The Bigamist later in 1953. Lovejoy is best known to me as the police officer in Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Lupino had a leading acting role in On Dangerous Ground (1950) for Nick Ray and claims have been made that she directed some scenes of that film when Ray was unwell. I imagine Lupino was very well-known in Hollywood and must have had a large network of people she had worked with and could rely on. She was an independent, but needed a studio like RKO to distribute her films so she still had to compromise on certain issues.

One of the noir sequences with careful lighting of the passengers in the car

The Hitch-Hiker is usually described as a film noir and Lupino is often described as the first woman to make a noir – as well as being one of the great femmes fatales in several noirs. I understand why this has happened and it’s true that there are distinctly ‘noirish’ sequences in the film. However, I think it is more useful to consider the film as being in the ‘mode’ of a film noir but drawing on several other genres. Lupino herself was generally interested in films about ‘ordinary people’ – the bewildered folk who find themselves in difficult positions. She looked for that documentary feel. In The Hitch-Hiker there are conventional montages showing newspaper headlines, but also important procedural touches such as the co-operation between the US and Mexican police agencies, the use of radio transmissions to deceive Myers and coverage of the search techniques. I was also struck by how much the narrative resembled a Western, especially in the journey through the desert, the night-time camping and the encounters with small Mexican communities and travellers. It isn’t difficult to imagine the car replaced by horses or a buggy. But the prime generic ‘mover’ of the action is the psychological thriller. Collins (O’Brien) and Bowen (Lovejoy) are ‘ordinary guys’ on a fishing trip. They may well have been in the Second World War (and Bowen is a skilled rifleman) but now they live comfortable lives in the suburbs with wives and families (incidentally this is a very male story – there are no female characters). Myers knows that they can only act together. Neither will risk escaping alone as the other would certainly be killed. He plays games with them and unsettles them at every opportunity. Myers also has a damaged eye that will not close, so it’s almost impossible to tell if he’s sleeping with his staring eye clearly visible.

There are no real surprises in how the story ends but we don’t care because we are taken up with the tension and suspense. We know Myers will be caught but we are still concerned about the two hostages – who are different in their behaviour. I’ve rarely got so involved in a short feature like this.

The film was presented on a 35mm print from the National Film Archive in good condition. Since the railways showed no sign of re-opening, I knew I would have the chance to see The Bigamist the next day – post to follow.

GFF18 #10: Lucky (US 2017)

Howard (David Lynch) and Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) in their local bar.

Many of the films I saw at Glasgow this year were ‘picks’ from Cannes, Toronto or other festivals that have already secured UK distribution deals. Lucky is listed as having been acquired by ‘UK Film and TV’, a company I know nothing about but, going by the enthusiastic reception at the screening we attended, it has a good opportunity here to create a ‘sleeper’ or a cult classic. I hope the film will get into cinemas, but I fear it might not. Its USP is that it is a final lead actor appearance for Harry Dean Stanton, one of the best-loved character stars of the last fifty years. Harry Dean died aged 91 last September and, although there is one more supporting role to come in a proposed 2018 release, Lucky will stand as his epitaph, especially as its script incorporates several aspects of Harry Dean’s own life story.

Ironically, the screening we watched took place in Screen 1 of the 18-screen Cineworld complex a few streets away from the Glasgow Film Theatre. Harry Dean made his name first in popular genre features. His role in Alien (1979) is possibly what made him a name to remember, but before that he had featured in a long string of Westerns, war combat and other action genre films since the mid 1950s, often ‘uncredited’. I think it was in films by Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman and Walter Hill that I first noticed him. In 1984 he had two major leading roles in Repo Man by Alex Cox and Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders. Later he became associated with David Lynch and his later career was again down the cast list, often in independent productions, often for ‘name’ directors. Seen on a large multiplex screen, Lucky is unusual as a ‘slow’ film with few young characters and very little action. But it has a great cast, a beautifully-written script by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja and direction by another great supporting player John Carroll Lynch (last seen by me as Lyndon B. Johnson in Jackie) on his first film behind the camera. Photographed by the veteran Tim Suhrstedt, the film is stately in its movements – matching its 90 year-old leading man.

Although this is clearly a low-budget film, it looked great on a big screen. Most of the film was shot in Piru, Ventura County, California. IMDb lists 132 features filmed in this small community since the late 1940s. Shots of the surrounding desert were actually captured in Arizona. The film’s ‘action’ mainly follows Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) from the time he gets up each day through his exercise regime, his visits to the diner and the store and finally each night to a small bar. The ‘rebel’ of the film is ‘President Roosevelt’, the 100 year-old tortoise belonging to Howard (played with great delicacy by David Lynch) who goes walkabout and nearly steals the film. What’s it about? Well, I guess it’s about growing old and keeping your dignity without accepting the bullshit that comes with lazy assumptions about old age. It’s also great that Lucky is an atheist facing his end – which seems all to rare in American cinema.

Lucky has three facets of Harry Dean Stanton’s own life. He comes from Kentucky, he has had experience of musical performance and during the Pacific War he was a cook aboard an ‘LST’ (Landing Ship, Tank). The one slight mistep in the film for me is when Lucky meets another veteran in the diner one day. Fred, the veteran is played by Tom Skerritt (who appeared alongside Harry Dean in Alien). Skerritt was a sprightly 83 when he appeared in Lucky, but even so he looks too young to have been in Okinawa in 1945 (when he would have been 12 years old). This might seem to be nit-picking but Lucky‘s focus on Harry Dean Stanton’s 90 year-old body is relentless (and refreshing). The scene between the two veterans could still work with Lucky talking about the Pacific War and Fred replying with memories of Vietnam or even Korea.

Lucky sings at a birthday party

Lucky also has music, including an amazing version of ‘Volver, Volver’ (written by Fernando Maldonado) which Lucky sings in Spanish at a birthday party (the title translates as ‘Return’ or ‘Come back’. This is a showstopper and the film ends with Johnny Cash over the credits singing ‘I See a Darkness’. Lucky is a film that represents a world many of us would like to live in. Here is a community where people care about each other. Where it doesn’t matter if you are black or white, anglo or hispanic. It’s a film without violence or unnecessary swearing. But it’s also a world where you can argue, regret and be human in many different ways. It’s certainly worth spending 86 minutes of your time exploring, so I urge you to seek it out.

Phantom Thread (US 2017)

The first meeting between Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps) in Robin Hood’s Bay

Phantom Thread is a film made by American money entirely in the UK (apart from some post-production). There are so many distinctive local features that it feels a little like those 1960s ‘British Hollywood’ features. It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson production (which he has written, directed and appears to have photographed himself – there is no photography credit) so we expect something distinctive and different. I purposely tried to forget anything I’d read beforehand (though I confess to looking out for the scene shot in Blackpool Tower Ballroom). I couldn’t work out why the characters might go to Blackpool and of course they don’t, but in an early scene there is a card or a painting of some kind in the background that might be a view of the Promenade and the Tower and later the ballroom stands in for The Albert Hall staging the New Year’s Eve Chelsea Arts Ball.

So, not knowing too much about what to expect, I missed most of the critical references I was supposed to see. I don’t think this is because I’m too stupid to spot them or that the film doesn’t necessarily conform to the critical consensus. Instead, I think I just got interested in different things and I possibly missed some key markers. I think also that Anderson perhaps didn’t realise how this British spectator would view the film. Let me say first that I enjoyed the film. How could I not enjoy three central performances of great skill and a sumptuously presented insight into the craft processes of haute couture?

Cyril (Lesley Manville) oversees work on a wedding dress at the ‘House of Woodcock’

The narrative offers us Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) who lives in a Mayfair town house servicing the demands of aristocratic patrons for wedding dresses and other haute couture costumes some time in the early 1950s. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and a succession of live-in ‘girlfriends’ – young women who believe for a moment that they can disrupt the ordered bachelor world Reynolds has built around himself. After a particularly difficult work period, the latest of these young women is sent on her way (by Cyril)  and Reynolds drives to his country retreat – a large house with its own upstairs atelier. The country retreat appears to be in Yorkshire (but filmed in the Cotswolds) and Reynolds first stops at a hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay where he meets a young woman serving breakfast and is immediately smitten. This is Alma (Vicky Krieps) and a few days later he will take her back to London.

Alma models a gown

I can understand why Reynolds would find Alma bewitching. I was fascinated by her from the start. Her smile made me think of someone else I’d seen who I couldn’t place (later I discovered that she’d been in a French film I’d seen, but couldn’t remember). At first I thought Alma might be Irish, but a little later an incident suggests that she might be a European refugee and later still her surname sounds Northern European, possibly Nordic. The critical fraternity has latched onto the fact that Hitchcock was married to Alma Reville and this is cited as strong evidence that the film is meant to be a ‘gothic romance’ with Rebecca as just one of several filmic inspirations. Certainly Cyril at times seems very much in the Mrs Danvers mould, but others have referred to the young women who enter the ‘House of Woodcock’ as more akin to ‘Bluebeard’s wives’. James Bell writing in Sight and Sound (February 2018) discusses a range of filmic references. He mentions The Red Shoes (1948) and Anderson certainly appears to be a Powell & Pressburger fan. The link here is the Svengali-like figure of the ballet impresario Lermontov but the relationships are quite different in the two films. Anderson’s passion for David Lean is seemingly well-known and Lean’s The Passionate Friends (1949) is also quoted as an inspiration for Phantom Thread. I can’t remember the Lean film at all, but it does seem that two sequences in Anderson’s film are directly inspired by it (the Swiss hotel and the New Year’s Eve Arts Ball). Alongside Bell’s piece the website ‘Film School Rejects’ suggests the same links and adds some more – all of which Anderson seems to have alluded too. So, Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and P & P’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are mentioned as well as several other Hitchcocks. For me, discussing Hitchcock and Powell together makes some sense but Lean is almost Powell’s opposite as a filmmaker (and was certainly seen as such during 1945-50). It turns out that Anderson’s interest in I Know Where I’m Going! is because there is a contrast between the wild landscapes and the characters trapped in ‘tiny rooms’. Well, yes there is – I wonder if Anderson knows that it is because the lead actors never went on location?

Reynolds finds Alma at the Chelsea Arts Club Ball

My point in mentioning all these references is that while fascinating, they don’t really help the average cinemagoer to make sense of the narrative – and several comments on IMDb (and others people have made to me) describe the film as ‘boring’. That’s a shame, but if you make a film with a narrative that is impenetrable for large swathes of the audience, you have a problem. I don’t think that Phantom Thread has the passion that Powell & Pressburger might have brought to the table or the disturbance that Hitchcock might have generated. Instead, Anderson offers us an intimate drama with wit and an element of fantasy and mystery that could have been developed further. The music by Jonny Greenwood and the sound design are both very effective and I always enjoy the ‘procedural’ elements of, in this case, haute couture. However, this kind of haute couture involves the British (and European) aristocracy in the 1950s as customers – a quite repellent bunch in many instances (which, to be fair, the story does deal with). Against this, at the beginning of the film, one of my favourite actors, Gina McKee, a miner’s daughter from Peterlee, appears as ‘Countess Henrietta Harding’. Gina seems to be having so much fun showing off a posh frock, it helped me to get through some of the excruciating scenes. I was reminded, however, of a film about fashion that I did enjoy very much, Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) with Audrey Tautou as the young Chanel – an insight into innovation in dress design. Despite the exquisite work of the seamstresses, I didn’t really like any of the clothes on show (which is not to blame the designer Mark Bridges who was trying to represent the designs of the times).

I did enjoy watching the film, but I think Anderson missed a trick by not making more of the landscapes in Yorkshire and Switzerland. I felt that the presentation was too restrained. More melodrama for me, more gothic and more passion. It has been reported that this could be the last feature for both Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, at least for the moment. That would be a loss to contemporary cinema. I daresay Vicky Krieps will get interesting roles in the future and Lesley Manville will go from strength to strength. Here’s the trailer. It looks like all those things I want are here – but they are selected moments from a 130 mins narrative:

Roman J. Israel Esq. (US 2017)

Denzel Washington is Roman J. Israel Esq.

This strange film arrived in the UK over two months after its North American release. Between its Toronto festival appearance and its release, writer-director Dan Gilroy cut up to 15 minutes off its running time and ‘re-configured it’ – not usually a good sign (quote from this interview). It appears in the UK now, I suspect, mainly because Denzel Washington has been Oscar-nominated as the titular character. Although it’s a Sony/Columbia release, it’s actually the product of several small production companies with additional funding from ‘Culture China – Image Nation Abu Dhabi Fund’. There must be a story behind this. I’m clearly at a disadvantage here in not having seen Nightcrawler (2014), Gilroy’s earlier writer-director outing focusing on crime journalism. Gilroy suggests that Roman starts as the opposite of the lead character in Nightcrawler in terms of having a ‘moral compass’. I’m thinking that perhaps Denzel’s star performance and the many cultural references to African-American activism and problems with the law are not meant to be as central to the narrative as I want them to be.

The film’s reception has been very mixed. I went to the first local screening and I was the only person in the auditorium for what turned out to be a subtitled screening for ‘hard of hearing’ audiences – something I hadn’t picked up from the listings. I did wonder if it was simply an accident. Since I often struggle to distinguish the ‘realist’ dialogue of modern Hollywood, this was fine with me.

The story (as distinct from the film narrative which I won’t spoil) begins when Roman J. Israel arrives at his LA law office to discover that his ‘partner’ (I was never clear about the legal arrangement) has had a heart attack and been taken to hospital. Roman is the backroom legal wizard who never goes near an actual public court and when he finds himself attempting to deal with the day’s courtroom business we immediately discover why. His partner’s family decide to bring in a family acquaintance, hotshot city lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), to wind up the current business and close the company which has been losing money for many years. Roman is taken aback and fears himself to be redundant but George later re-appears with an offer. In the meantime, Roman visits a ‘Civil Rights legal support group’ and tries to offer his services. It was this sequence in the trailer that first attracted me to the film. I won’t say any more about the plot as such.

Denzel with Colin Farrell as George Pierce

I had assumed that this was a film with a strong interest in African-American culture and specifically in the problems affecting black youth in the Los Angeles district. In a way it is. Roman seems to still be living in the 1970s/80s. He sports an Afro, dresses in wide-lapelled, colourful but ill-fitting suits, listens to 70s soul and jazz, doesn’t drive (in LA!) and lives in an old apartment block surrounded by constant re-building. Roman presents as a man literally adrift from the modern world and still wrapped up in a world where researching and documenting the institutionalised racism of the US legal system is a very important part of activism. Contemporary gender politics is just one of the developments that have passed Roman by. Denzel goes the full hog on his appearance, apparently removing cosmetic work on his teeth and, I assume, wearing prosthetic jowls and extra padding on his torso.

What kind of story development did Gilroy have in mind? Many reviewers have described Roman as autistic, possibly with Asperger’s. We are back in the same territory as Newton (India 2017), though the two titular characters are quite different. The clues to Roman’s autism aren’t totally convincing – and anyway, it has been argued that many people are somewhere on the autistic spectrum. It could simply be that after so many years working in the office, Roman is overwhelmed by being confronted with real live defendants. Because of his background in civil rights and as he terms it ‘revolutionary action’, there was a moment when I thought Roman was like Jeremy Corbyn – suddenly faced with the need to be pragmatic but still trying to hang on to the deep political commitment of ‘the struggle’. Corbyn negotiated the change of context and the need to change his own presentation. Roman eventually reacts in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I’m still wondering if the film is a satire on the US legal system or possibly of professional middle-aged African-American men. The last third of the film is very odd and I can understand why critics take against the development of some familiar genre tropes. I’m not sure what to make of it. Though the films are very different, there are some elements here that reminded me of Spike Lee’s magnificent but critically divisive Bamboozled (US 2000).

Carmen Dejogo as Maya with Denzel Washington in a street scene (photo: Glen Wilson)

As well as Colin Farrell as George there is one other significant character, Maya, at the civil rights community legal centre. She’s played by Carmen Ejogo who I have now learned is a Brit and who previously appeared as the wife of Martin Luther King in Selma (2014). Again, I was not expecting her role in the story.

I think part of my problem with the film is that while US and English (as distinct from Scottish) legal systems have the same basis in English Common Law, the contemporary practise of law is different. I didn’t totally understand the importance of some procedures. I’ve read comments that the representation of US law practices in the film is not accurate but I don’t think that matters since it is the impact on Roman and his life that is the focus. The film looks very good (thanks to the cinematography of Robert Elswit) and I was intrigued by the new transit system which takes Roman to Santa Monica. The film also sounds good thanks to Roman’s choice of tracks to play on his headphones. I suspect that Roman J. Israel Esq. might flop in the UK, but who knows? I’d like to be able to read a diverse range of UK reviews. Most of Denzel Washington’s performances are worth catching and his Roman is one of the more intriguing ones.

Hostiles (US 2017)

Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) and Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), looking glum – as they might in the circumstances

Sometimes I feel sorry for film reviewers. If you have to respond with a tight deadline to watching a film like Hostiles it must be very difficult. Here is a film which is beautifully presented with some excellent performances but also with a very iffy script and some equally questionable didactic urges. Do you slam the film or try to justify it? An experienced reviewer like Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound (January 2018) can just about get away with a negative response slightly sweetened by discussion of the good points. But I’ve also seen some 10/10 user reviews on IMDb. I confess that I was a little suspicious when the ads for the film in the UK quoted glowing reviews from several publications I didn’t recognise.

Fortunately, I don’t have to score the film. Instead, I’ll try to explain what I think it’s doing and what the problems are. However, I am intrigued by the US companies who financed this $40 million independent film. It was picked up by Entertainment Film Distributors for selected UK multiplexes but I fear that its pacing alone will deter the popcorn crowd.

Wes Studi as Yellow Hawk tries to give advice about dealing with Comanche rebels

The first issue with the film is its location in the history of the West and the Western. We are supposedly in 1892 in New Mexico, which seems rather late to be dealing with Comanche rebels and a journey to escort a Cheyenne warrior and his family from prison in the South West to his homeland in Montana after seven years in captivity. The prisoner is Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) who has terminal cancer and the escort is to be led by a reluctant veteran ‘Indian fighter’, Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) on a last mission before his retirement. Soon after the party leaves the fort, they come across Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the only survivor of a raid by those Comanche rebels on a settler family’s homestead. The party will gather (and lose) members as it encounters various groups on its way to Montana and a final showdown. The party that left the fort included a ‘Buffalo soldier’, another hard-bitten Indian hunter, a raw French recruit and a greenhorn Lieutenant – a generic grouping for a Western narrative. The whole set-up seemed wrong in terms of historical period to me and when I came across some pre-publicity for the film which dated the events as 1882 that made more sense. To put this in context, the major battle of Little Big Horn and its consequences covers the period from 1876 to 1881 (the Northern Cheyenne fought with the Lakota of Sitting Bull). After that the focus on the final acts of the Indian Wars was on the Apache and the tribes of the South West.

Rosalee (who has lost her family to Comanche rebels) becomes protector of Cheyenne women and child

But perhaps this doesn’t matter. Much more important is the exploration of the guilt of the coloniser which in this film seems to be represented in ways which are perhaps easily dismissed as anachronistic. Several of the (white) characters seem to perform an abrupt volte face, switching from hatred of ‘savages’ to true respect for Cheyenne culture. These questions are the fulcrum for readings of the film which veer from condemnation for being too politically correct and turning away from the genre towards being accepting of our contemporary views and a denial of historical perspective. The film takes itself very seriously and is in many ways wedded to gloom. It begins with a D. H. Lawrence quote about the American soul – “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted” (Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923). Characters discuss their faith and one concludes that “God is blind” to what has happened in the West. Before I saw the film, somebody described it as violent. Many people are killed in the film, but not as many as in some other Hollywood action pictures. It is the film’s own seriousness (emphasised by sparse and spare dialogue and a Max Richter score) which gives the deaths a proper importance in the narrative.

The film is written, directed and produced by Scott Cooper. I did see Cooper’s first film, the country music romance Crazy Heart (US 2010), but not his next two, Out of the Furnace (2013) and Black Mass (2015). Reading reviews, it would appear that Cooper is interested in strong character-driven narratives with a measured pace (Cooper was first an actor). He certainly uses genre narratives but appears not want to consciously work with or against genre expectations. On this basis, the meaning of Hostiles is to be found in Christian Bale’s character (Bale was also the lead in Out of the Furnace). But in relation to a genre as deeply embedded in the American psyche as the Western, Bale’s character is inevitably going to be read in terms of specific earlier Westerns and their characters. On this score, Cooper, in an interview with MovieMaker magazine seems to be confused in his understanding of the Western and what he is trying to achieve (though the interview is not well sub-edited):

I don’t think much in terms of genre . . . while it is set in the American West, in 1892, I wanted it to be more about a human journey, a psychological journey. If anything it’s a psychological western in the vein of Anthony Mann. There were a couple of shots where I paid homage to John Ford’s The Searchers. I don’t think it’s a western, it has more in common with Joseph Conrad or Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour.

It’s that last part that baffles me. Perhaps he said “Conrad not McMurtry or L’Amour”, since the latter are two of the best-known writers of Western novels.

The five soldiers who start the journey. “Who will survive?” might be the genre question.

At this point I should state that the real strength of the film is the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi who worked on earlier films by Cooper and also Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner. Here in an interview he recounts how he and Cooper worked only on location and how he changed film stock to deal with dramatic changes in weather conditions. The results are stunning and they immediately lead us to think about Anthony Mann Westerns and possibly the Peckinpah of Ride the High Country (1962). But as Cooper suggests, the central emotional trigger is John Wayne’s performance as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). Cooper even goes as far as claiming that the end of his film in some way responds to the famous ending of The Searchers. I won’t spoil what happens in Cooper’s film. It is interesting, but doesn’t have the power of Ford’s ending. Ethan Edwards is one of the great creations of the Hollywood Western. As Martin Scorsese says about him, he’s not a villain but he’s despicable. Ethan’s hatred of the Comanche is deeply rooted but it is accompanied by cultural knowledge about his enemy. He can keep his anger under control when faced with Martin Pawley and his own niece Lucy, both of whom are ‘tainted’ in his eyes by their links to Native Americans. But control is not enough to allow Ethan back into the American family/community. He remains as the French title of the film suggests, a ‘Prisoner of the Desert’.

Here is what Cooper says about his narrative (the script was worked up from an original by Donald E. Stewart, a well-known screenwriter who died in 1999:

I placed the action from New Mexico to Montana. It would allow me to speak to what’s happening in America today, in terms of race. The racial divide in our country is widening. We’re living in polarized times, and I wanted to speak to this notion that we need to better understand one another and to reconcile. I think America needs to heal. My characters’ journey from New Mexico to Montana becomes an enlightenment. I wanted to speak to what I see is an America looming down a dark and dangerous path.

Blocker at the Cheyenne burial ground. Like Ethan Edwards, he knows something of his enemy’s culture – and his language

Ethan Edwards in 1956 was a complex character stirring up questions about race and racial difference in an America still to experience the full force of Civil Rights. Bale’s Captain Blocker faces similar questions in 2017 when America is a very different (but still conflicted) society. I don’t feel that Blocker, as written, can carry or express the emotions that Cooper has in mind. Here is a final extract from Cooper’s interview, in response to those comments about the violence in the film:

. . . the American West, while majestic, was very violent. As wars generally begin, it’s all about resources and land. The United States government was trying to impose its will on Indigenous peoples. There is a dark and unforgivable past of attempted genocide. I wanted the movie to be punctuated by moments of extreme violence. I abhor violence, but these very violent and vivid encounters on the road end up informing the characters emotionally and psychologically in a way that really spoke to the difficulties in trying to achieve Manifest Destiny.

‘Manifest Destiny’ was the belief in the United States that ‘Americans’ (i.e. of white European stock) were destined to spread across the United States, settling the land and creating a free society which persecution had denied them or their forefathers in Europe. This would inevitably mean annexing the lands of Native Americans. Ironically, in 1892 when Captain Blocker’s orders come directly from Republican President Benjamin Harrison, the Republican platform for the November presidential election re-affirmed a belief in that ‘Manifest Destiny’ which was beginning to fade. The Republicans lost the election but returned in 1896 when the ‘Western frontier’ was effectively ‘civilised’. American expansionism then turned overseas to the Spanish-American Wars and the pursuit of American power across the rest of the Americas.

I think my final thoughts are that Scott Cooper may be sincere in what he is attempting, but that he is trying to do too much and perhaps he needs to spend more time watching Westerns. But then is possibly better to attempt too much rather than to succumb to the limited aims of much of contemporary American filmmaking. I was never bored by Hostiles and those landscapes are amazing. The trailer below does include a ‘Searchers moment’ and some of the terrific ‘figures in a landscape’ cinematography.