Feb 11, 2018

REVIEW: Loveless (dir. Zvyagintsev)

'It’s a forbidding but commanding film,  ostensibly  a missing-child procedural that plumes like ink in water into a corrosive critique on the beautiful monster that is Putin’s Russia, strange land of religious orthodoxy, tech companies, jaded bureaucracies, selfies and bikini waxes.  “The stats are on your side”  one lugubrious detective says to Boris, ceding responsibility for the search to a resourceful volunteer group, led by a coordinator (Alexey Fateev) who is the closest the movie has to a moral centre. Traditionally in a film like this, the search would bring the parents closer together, but as the orange-vested team combs the neighbourhood putting up flyers, the title instead expands panoramically to include a whole society in which cruelties are passed around, from mother to child, from husband to wife, alike. From Russia Without Love. Shoot the same thing east of the Volga — in Luxembourg, say, or Croydon — and all you have is a movie about a bad marriage with selfies. Zvyagintsev has pulled off something similar before. In 2014, he electrified Cannes with his 2014 film, Leviathan, a family drama that grew into a Hobbesian portrait of the boozy, corrupt provincial life.  The new movie is even more pitiless, if that were possible, but also more beautiful, shot with pristine dismay by  director of photography Mikhail Krichman, who photographs the characters through car windshields and tower block windows in which the Russian winter is always reflected, and creeps like a prowler through tower blocks, frozen forests, and, best of all, a ruined complex with crumbling conference rooms, movie theater, and basketball court that looks as if it has been rotting there since the days of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. If, as the camera pushes through those decrepit corridors, you find yourself pulling back in your seat, Zvyagintsev has you exactly where he wants you: your fears for the worst just out-paced by your desire for the truth... He isn’t the only thing that’s missing, we surmise by the end of the movie —  an extended shot of Zhenya running on a treadmill, the word “Russia” printed on her sweatshirt. Is she trying to avoid the TV reports of the war in the Ukraine? Outrun some inner restlessness? Or follow in the footsteps of her son? Maybe he had the best idea, all along.' —from my Sunday Times review

Feb 6, 2018

REVIEW: Phantom Thread (dir. Anderson)

'The film a distant cousin of this fervid Gothic romances — including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Suspicion, Sleeping with the Enemy, and, yes, Fifty Shades of Grey — in which women first submit to and then break free of the clutches of an over-controlling svengali figure. Like Scorsese, Anderson loves those old melodramas to the point of limbic entrancement without wishing to abide by their rules or deliver on their narrative satisfactions. We get a ghost of that dead mother, a lush Franz Waxman inspired piano score, while Lesley Manville’s Cyril evokes the forbidding shade of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, hovering in the wings of her brother’s meticulous routine. “Are you sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?” explodes Reynolds at one point, after Alma has prepared his asparagus with butter rather than oil and salt the way he likes it. She further tells him she loves him. He acts as if ambushed. It’s a film, in short, about emotional fascism — someone whose very identity is threatened by the presence of another and whose idea of a relationship requires the complete subjugation of that person’s will. Phantom Thread is about right: In what Day Lewis has said will be his last performance, he summons the ghosts of performances past, marrying the epicene manners of his aesthete Cecil in Room with a View, the adamantine psychic furnace of a Bill the Butcher, while Anderson skips merrily at his side, in secret, mischievous league with his leading man, just as he was with with Day Lewis’s oilman in There Will Be Blood. Paul Dano’s preacher barely registered. The same with Joaquin Phoenix’s sottish sailor  in  The Master, drawn into queasy Stockholm-Syndromish thrall to Hoffman’s cult leader, like a mongoose hypnotized by a cobra. Anderson seems to love these great, terrible, iron-willed men — they are the stuff of masterpiece cinema  — but is so far incapable of creating an antagonist of sufficient stature to challenge or oppose them. His films are versions of Citizen Kane in which Kane wins.  Krieps probably comes closest of anyone to redressing this imbalance. She’s a terrific find: calm and imperturbable, with a both pretty and plain depending on the light. “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose,” she tells Reynolds, with an eagle eye for his weakness: when sick, he is as open and tender as she could wish. From this springs the film’s major third-act twist, both perverse and more than a little preposterous — it wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a 30-minute episode of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected and joins Anderson’s growing collection of bizarro endings, like the raining frogs at the end of Magnolia or the rant about milkshakes that capped There Will Be Blood. His films don’t develop so much as circle, intensify and then suddenly derail, like someone crashing a bike into a ditch. I’m not sure Anderson believes in plot or character development per se.  “There is an air of quiet death in this house,” Reynolds says, and the film is as expert, airless and monomaniacal as he is: the Max De Winter story as told by Max De Winter. Free spirits need not apply.' — from my Sunday Times review