Short Cuts: DARKEST HOUR

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The Academy Awards have a way of bringing them out: largely ordinary films that could only have been made by experts at their craft. A lot of what can be said for Darkest Hour, Joe Wright’s Best Picture nominee about Winston Churchill, could be said about any number of Oscar-bait films, including several by Wright, and including The King’s Speech (2010), with which it shares a historical moment and a major character. The virtues of Wright and his team can’t be discounted. The cinematography and editing have a forceful precision, the acting is top-notch, and the story is swift and economical—again, we are in the hands of professionals. What blunts its effectiveness is a lack of distinction, or rather the question of what lasting value its effectiveness actually holds. It is, crisp imagery and all, a rather expected Great Man docudrama, the sort of basic retrospective where a hero achieves greatness by insisting on doing X when everyone around him says the only possibility is Y. It confirms mainly that a) Academy Voters of a Certain Age remain helpless to resist Brits in period costume, and b) the Best Actor race tends to demand not just the emotional immersion of good acting, but a degree of fussy transformation. Gary Oldman, nailing the accent and mannerisms under several layers of fake flab, is considered more or less a lock to win the Oscar for his Churchill. When he does, I can’t complain. But I’d take his subtler, implosive, enigmatic performance in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) nine times out of ten.

So what’s most interesting about Darkest Hour is less the film itself, which is undeniably engaging for what it is, but rather the circumstances that surround it. So, without further ado, and given that it is the most conventionally Oscar-y of this year’s Oscar films, here are a few loose notes on awards season 2018 inspired by Darkest Hour

First, there is the manner in which I was able to see it. It was available, legally and from the comfort of my own apartment, for VOD streaming only six weeks after its wide theatrical release date. That’s one of the narrower windows I’ve seen for such a high-profile A-list production, and it’s Exhibit M that, in an era where big box office and Oscar bets have been drifting out of sync, the calculus of how a distributor can take advantage of awards hype is changing.

Second, there is the serendipity that Darkest Hour is sharing the Best Picture slate with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is about the same event, ends on the same speech, and does so in such a vastly different way that the Academy couldn’t have created a more instructive double bill if it tried. And Nolan’s decision to have a collective main character—that is, no particular main character at all—stands as a much more interesting way to take on history than viewing it through the lens of a Great Man.

Third, as long as we’re talking about Best Picture nominees, Darkest Hour can rub shoulders with Steven Spielberg’s The Post. As a general principle, a new Spielberg film means far more to me than a new film by Wright. The Post, which I reviewed at length here, is not one of Spielberg’s best. It has some utterly mind-boggling things wrong with it, but its rough edges and topical bluntness certainly feel like they come from some personal desire. So as a thought experiment, I set the two movies side by side and found that I preferred the immaculate polish of Wright’s film to the wonky sincerity of Spielberg’s. Auteurist principles have their uses, but they can also make for unsatisfying nights at the movies.

And finally, there is the pull-quote I see on the poster every time I walk down Santa Monica Blvd. “Darkest Hour is the movie we need right now,” raves the Washington Post, for showing us the kind of steadfast leadership in such short supply. I can’t say the film didn’t goose me to inspiration, yet there is something vaguely ominous these days about spending two hours rooting for a world leader to go to war. Churchill/Oldman’s hero’s quest is to fend off pressure for appeasement and commit to all-out combat where it’s either us or them. Only the most contrarian history buff could blame him; his opponent was literally Hitler. But the film’s characterization of Churchill—an unconventional leader, eccentric in his personal habits, bellicose by nature, not exactly polite, regarded with distrust by the political establishment, connecting directly with the hoi polloi, and promising to be a tough man for a tough time—sounds a lot like the reason so many Americans voted for Donald Trump, even if they got a tacky gold-plated imitation instead. I doubt the filmmakers or the Washington Post had that idea on their mind when thinking of the leader we need; the opposite is far more likely. But that, essentially, is the only aspect of Darkest Hour that feels raw, like it wouldn’t have been exactly the same at an Oscar season ten or twenty years ago. Like Dunkirk, or The Post for that matter, the movie ends with the real battle only just on the horizon. I can only hope its idea of importance is the stuff of stodgy period pieces.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Darkest Hour is available on Amazon, iTunes, and at a theater near you. Whatever floats your boat.

Shorts Cuts: THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV

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Nowadays, Jean-Pierre Leaud is as much a symbol as an actor, and with good reason. Starring in The 400 Blows (1959) when he was 14, he broke out at the same moment the French New Wave did and then proceeded to come of age on camera at a time when the idea of cinema got tied to such restless, experimental, political upheaval. The honor roll includes Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Feminin (1966), Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973), to pick the first three films to pop into my head—excluding, for the sake of fairness, the half dozen or so he made with Truffaut. In my own millennial lifetime, he’s been cast in ways that are both savvy and fetishistic: as a former New Wave director wondering what it was all for in Irma Vep (1996), and as himself in fond cameos in Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is It There? (2001) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003).

So it’s a credit to how much Leaud disappears into Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, in which he plays a noble aged monarch sliding towards oblivion, that the film is more than a cineaste’s allegory for bygone movie history. Certainly, that reading is available, and plenty satisfying if you want it. But Serra’s film has its eye on something grander, drawn paradoxically on a small scale. The plot is little more than the title: it is a two-hour string of scenes at an 18th century deathbed, the camera generally restricted to a few interiors. Its only intrigue is the way sycophants and medical quacks huddle in the corners, second-guessing themselves on how to treat the king or wondering how to get him to sign off on a matter of state, even as the king himself reverts to the mind of a child.

It is, I imagine, not what most people would call “a good movie” on the technicality that it’s not what most people would call “a movie” at all. But it’s catnip for anyone who needs to be reminded that that restless filmmaking spirit never really went away. It is defiantly slow and hushed, the sort of film that insists on being taken on its terms and no one else’s. But as its details accumulate, it reaches a cinematic sweet spot where a film can tackle such heady subjects—the absurdity of history, the inevitability of death, and the way human civilization, each phase of which looks surreal in retrospect, is helpless in the face of it—without anyone ever giving a speech to that effect or reducing its ideas to mere words. (In aiming to make a period-piece era feel not relatable but insane, it finds a candlelit brethren in Barry Lyndon (1975), which many Kubrick fans are bored by for reasons I can’t fully understand, and which is an action movie by comparison).

Ultimately, the experience of The Death of Louis XIV is modestly anticlimactic for a film of such willful ambition, which is a polite way of saying that I suspect Serra’s best work is either still to come or carries inherent limitations. But with Leaud providing the raw pain, confusion, and wistfulness of old age, and Serra providing a perspective that can swing from empathy to satire to the grisly and the grotesque, it is a gem: a slice of provocative melancholia willing to set (and break) its own rules.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Death of Louis XIV played Cannes in 2016 and was released into a precious handful of theaters by the good people at Cinema Guild in 2017. It is now hiding, available for rental, on iTunes.

Short Cuts: PHANTOM THREAD

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Paul Thomas Anderson may be the most Freudian director working today. His films are dotted with children paying for the sins of their parents; seekers who are both eager for and ashamed of sex; and men who want badly to be cradled and get laid, though not necessarily in that order, because they can’t decide on the order themselves. What other director could, with Punch-Drunk Love (2002), surface how a lot of 90s Adam Sandler comedies could be half-psychodrama if they really applied themselves? So with Phantom Thread, a strange but eternal kind of love story, Anderson is quite at home setting his latest film circa 1950, a golden age for psychodramas, where his lovers can take a stroll along a windswept cliffside that wouldn’t be out of place in Rebecca (1940) or Suspicion (1941). They are played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps as a kind of Svengali and ingenue, each half-enigma or half-phantom in what makes them tick. Carnality is never visible in the film, as it wouldn’t be in any film made there and then. Yet it is unmistakably a tale of battle and conquest, asking us to wonder who is conquering whom, and to what end.

It is Anderson’s return to this time period after 2012’s The Master, a relentlessly psychoanalytic film that, perhaps because of its huge hype, started Anderson’s journey to becoming more of an acquired taste than he already was. (I remember how perplexed people were that it had all the ingredients of an American epic like There Will Be Blood (2007), but turned out to be largely about a spasmodic Joaquin Phoenix grappling with his erection.) But Phantom Thread is also Anderson’s return to someplace else: the main spotlight of Oscar season, with nods for Best Picture and Best Director for the first time since There Will Be Blood. Part of this may be that Anderson has scaled back on the more off-putting scatological aspects of The Master and Inherent Vice (2014); emotional intimacy is a more respectable subject than melancholic horniness, if not necessarily a more profound one. But there is another, more basic reason: it’s his best film since There Will Be Blood as well, his most focused, cohesive, and emotionally resonant, even as it continues his exploration of making films borne on texture and flow. The plot is just a framework; the real narrative is made of liquid.

So, about that framework. The story concerns the relationship between a famous British fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock—I never said Anderson abandoned scatology completely—and a young waitress named Alma whom he takes on as his latest live-in companion. Reynolds is an intensely fussy man, pathologically insistent on control down to the smallest detail in both his work and his life. His only true confidante is his rigid sister (Lesley Manville). He has preoccupations surrounding his late mother, and he takes on romantic partners only to discard them once they’re worn down. He is an emotional tyrant, one senses, more by reflex than intent. And the film that surrounds him is about trying to bring someone into your life without exposing anything of yourself or giving up an inch of your own comfort or routine, which is a recipe for misery if there ever was one. With Alma, he may have met his match—but then, so much about her can seem slippery, too.

The arc of the film has more to do with character, theme, and metaphor than anything as immediate as plot, which means that much of Phantom Thread must be enjoyed the way Reynolds himself might enjoy it: by marveling at its fastidious beauty. As with The Master, Anderson and his composer Jonny Greenwood excel at creating a version of the past that somehow feels both immaculately familiar and utterly alien in its tone, which fits a movie that has the detail to be set either in a specific time and place or entirely in its characters’ minds. The camerawork is gorgeous, while Greenwood’s score makes the film feel like a series of visual musical compositions rather than dramatic scenes. But the compositions start to change. The stateliness breaks down into a sneaky sense of humor, and Alma, initially a cipher, grabs co-authorship. She is, as played marvelously by Krieps, the first real stab at a heroine in Anderson’s films in 15 years, and his work is all the better for it.

I’d never spoil the climax, except to say that what Alma and Reynolds have in store for one another—and what each gets out of their arrangement—gels by the end like a twist on a Hawksian screwball comedy. And as the “phantom” aspects take physical shape on screen, I was convinced that what I had seen just might be the most perversely romantic film of the year. Anderson, who started his career as a precocious wunderkind and is now approaching fifty, renders emotion in a way that has a worldly lucidity and works like a dream. The film washes over you, and if you are a certain kind of cinephile, it leaves behind the magnificent stamp of cinematic traditions being explored as a fresh and personal quest of discovery. The rave I’m giving it may not be the one I would have given halfway through the movie, or even as I exited the theater genuinely punch-drunk from Anderson’s conclusion. But I’ve lived with Phantom Thread for about a week now, and it only grows. I may be in love myself.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Phantom Thread is playing in theaters around the country and is up for a half dozen Academy Awards. I haven’t mentioned whether or not Daniel Day-Lewis is good in it, because I don’t need to.