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Non-Review Review: Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is certainly a beautiful film.

In many ways it resembles the dresses designed by the artist at its centre. It is elegant, well-composed, stylish. It looks perfect and has just the right texture. Phantom Thread is a meticulously-produced piece of work, with every technical aspect of the film delivered to the highest possible standard. More than that, Phantom Thread is a very clever and incisive film, one that arguably feels much more suited to this particular cultural moment than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Tailored to the role.

However, Phantom Thread feels like one of Reynolds Woodcock’s dresses in another manner. As fantastic as it might look, it is not designed for living. There is one memorable sequence in the middle of the film where Woodcock actually confiscates the dress from a patron because it is not being treated with the pomp and ceremony that he expects. These are dresses for display, designed to leave observers breathless. It never ignites the same passion as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, never feeling as anchored in appreciable human emotion.

Phantom Thread often feels too much like strolling through Woodcock’s parlour, the audience invited to examine the sheer craft and cleverness of what is being done, but warned in the starkest possible terms not to touch anything. There is beauty, but no feeling.

Make it sew.

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Non-Review Review: The Commuter

The Commuter is the best Neeson Season movie since The Grey and the best movie about the financial crisis since The Big Short.

On paper, The Commuter is a mildly interesting premise that feels very much of a piece with the typical January awards-fare counter-programming. It is very much a high-concept action film that feels populated from a mad lib. [Liam Neeson/Bruce Willis/Gerard Butler] is a [former cop/current cop/law enforcement official] who finds himself embroiled in a race against time to [protect/rescue/expose/defeat] a [loved one/conspiracy].

McCauley took the instruction not to fire the gun inside the carriage a little… literally.

The Commuter is very much of piece with Liam Neeson’s other collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra; Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night. It is a movie about a weary protagonist embroiled in a situation beyond his control, the perfect fodder for a midweek movie to be enjoyed with a bucket of pop corn and a soft drink of choice. However, what elevated The Commuter above these earlier collaborations is similar to what elevated Collet-Serra’s The Shallows above so many familiar shark movies.

The Commuter has the look and feel of a big dumb action movie, a film inviting the audience to engage on its own terms rather than theirs. However, there is a very knowing and self-aware quality to The Commuter, an understanding of what the audience expects of the film and what the film can expect from the audience in return. The result is a film that always feels smarter and better than it needs to be, very carefully calibrated; just serious enough to work, just self-aware enough to charm. The result is a delightfully enjoyable action film.

Dial “C” for Commuter.

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North by Northwest to Psycho: The Breakdown of Moral Order on the Edge of the Sixties…

In the space of three years, Hitchcock produced Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.

Each of those three films is (rightly) regarded as a classic, and it is astounding that a single director could produce three such films back-to-back with only a year between each. Each of those films is massively influential, each of those films is loved by critics and audiences alike, and each of those films is radically different than the other two. Hitchcock remains one of the most influential and respected film directors of all time, and these three consecutive classics demonstrate his remarkable control of the form.

The road to nowhere.

It is important to separate the modern perception of these films from the reaction to them upon release. Very few classics are accurately identified as such by contemporary critics, often settling into that role over time. Vertigo was originally met with a somewhat muted critical response by critics and struggled to break even on release. Pyscho was largely dismissed by critics as the time as something crass and inelegant. In contrast, the contemporary critical reception of North by Northwest was a lot warmer.

However, time has arguably been kinder to Vertigo and Psycho than to North by Northwest. Vertigo is frequently identified as one of (if not the) best films ever made. Psycho is frequently cited as one of the most formative (and perhaps the best) horror films ever made. In contrast, North by Northwest can feel overshadowed by the films that flank it, even if it is hard to feel too sorry for a film that have been described by both Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich as “perfect.”

A shady deal…

Still, there is a sense that the lightness of North by Northwest has been held against it. Ben Oliver has stated that North by Northwest is “not typical film-school fodder.” Nathan Rabin explains that North by Northwest is a “glorious trifle of an adventure film” placed “between two of Hitchcock’s heaviest and most tormented films.” David Shariatmadari has speculated that “perhaps the lack of Freudian handwaving leads people to rate it poorly in comparison.” There is a sense that North by Northwest is somehow lesser than the heavier films around it.

Of course, this speaks to broader trends in how critics talk about art. There is a tendency to prioritise drama over comedy, to dismiss superficially lighter material in favour of weightier content. (Genre fare faces a similar bias, although it seems that science-fiction and horror are more likely receive a revaluation in the medium- to long-term.) North by Northwest is a lighter and fluffier film than either Vertigo or Psycho, but does that make it inherently lesser than either of them. More to the point, there is a surprising amount of Psycho to be found in North by Northwest.

The final curtain.

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Non-Review Review: Throw Momma From the Train

Throw Momma From the Train feels like something of a dry run for Danny DeVito. The actor had previously directed a cable television movie, The Ratings Game, but Throw Momma From the Train represented his theatrical directorial début. While not nearly as effective as his follow-up, the classic War of the Roses, Throw Momma From the Train sustains itself with an interesting premise and two charming lead performances that help cover for a script that isn’t anywhere near as darkly comic as it would like to think that it is.

Snatching DeVito from the jaws of victory...

Snatching DeVito from the jaws of victory…

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Alfred Hitchcock at the Space!

Hitchcock is released in the UK and Ireland this week. I actually quite enjoyed it, but – then again – I am a big fan of the director and his work. I was notified this week that The Space, Britain’s on-line cultural hub run by the BBC and by the Arts Council, is celebrating the director’s legacy and has collected a host of Hitchcock-related materials from its archives, all of which are available via their website. It’s a great service, and I’m remarkably fond of it. It’s also nice to see a celebration of Hitchcock, and the sharing of material from the archives, free to the public at large. You can find the website here or click the picture below.

thespace

Non-Review Review: Hitchcock

As a bit of a film fan (and a bit of a Hitchcock fan), Hitchcock had me interested. After all, Hitchcock’s Psycho is arguably among the most important films ever made, both creating an entire subgenre (“the slasher”) and imbuing it with artistic credibility at the same time. The production of Psycho was not only a huge gambit for Hitchcock, but it was also an incredibly difficult task for the auteur to accomplish. Hitchcock was sixty when Psycho was eventually released. It’s easy to imagine a director at that age resting on his laurels, and Hitchcock really works when it explores the drives of the talented film maker, willing to look at the implications of those drives and how the same things that made him one of the world’s greatest directors may also have made him a less-than-nice person.

Hitchcock occasionally gets a bit too cluttered with domestic drama, but it features two strong performances and a fascinating true story. It might not be as exceptional as it could have been, but it’s still a damn fine exploration of movie history.

Alma matters?

Alma matters?

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Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Ignorance, Bliss and Entertainment…

Occasionally, I like to do a bit of research. That might shock some of my more regular readers. If I’m covering a particularly topic, I like to have a bit of background knowledge that will allow me to offer some nuanced or informed commentary. Hopefully, I might be able to tell you something you didn’t know – after all, hopefully the time spent reading my review isn’t wasted if I can tell you something you didn’t already know, regardless of whether our opinions agree or disagree. Also, it’s just nice to know these things because they can help my understanding of a particular film.

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