Film review – Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2018)

Following the completion of filming for Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he would be retiring from acting and that his role as 1950s London high-society dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock would be his final role. This can be considered both a figurative and literal bowing out in style. Oozing elegance and beauty in every aspect, it is an absolute triumph of a film.

The story centres around Woodcock, head of the House of Woodcock, a well-regarded craftsman who is seeing his popularity diminish by the beckoning of new fashion from around the world. He baulks at the word “chic”. He is a meticulous and silent worker, unforgiving of those who have the audacity to interrupt his genius in flow. His obsessive nature flows over to his personality, and those close to him are dictated to by his need for control. His closest ally is his sister Cyril (the brilliant Lesley Manville), who manages his business affairs and the staff and running of the house. Their world is flipped upside-down when a chance encounter leads Reynolds to fall into infatuation with a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who quickly moves into the house and thus begins her strange relationship with Reynolds.

In 2018, a cinematic year defined by an uprising of oppressed and attacked women finally being given a platform to voice their views on oppressive and controlling men in the film industry, it seems almost perverse that I enjoyed Day-Lewis’s performance so much. I felt at times like he was on the cusp of bursting into tears of laughter, such was the audacity of his character’s actions. In one of the best lines of the film, as shown below, he delivers the cutting “The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me.” Brilliant.

Jonny Greenwood, one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most frequent and reliable collaborators, provides the score. It is mesmerising, fitting beautifully with the visuals. In a recent interview with Adam Buxton, Greenwood stated that he wrote it in order for it to be performed along with the film. “I wanted to do it with six or seven players and make it all playable and send out the scores to cinemas and say ‘get some local players to play it live’ and it be a really regular thing. I love the idea of the film arriving and then the book of music arriving and these are the two things you put together and make it quite easy, but Paul kept on asking for bigger and bigger string section sounds to build the romance.” Indeed, this decision was probably the correct one, with the enduring stay-ability of the film benefiting over what could have been simply a nice touch at release. I challenge anyone to find a more perfectly romantic piece of film music this year than ‘House of Woodcock’. [1]

A film that is centred around a celebrated dressmaker almost inevitably has a wonderful display of costumes on show. Mark Bridges is another frequent Anderson collaborator, having worked with him on The Master, Inherent Vice and There Will Be Blood. The costumes here are absolutely stunning, perfectly capturing the essence of 1950s London high society. It is a costumier’s dream of a film, with the intricate efforts of making such beautiful dresses captured in great detail.

The film culminates in a most unlikely ending that absolutely works with the film, underlining the nature of Alma and Reynolds’s relationship to one-another and their desire to stay together. Their dinner table stand-off with a mushroom omelette may not have the intensity of the “I drink your milkshake!” scene in There Will Be Blood, but it swaps intense for tense as the scene plays out. It’s just one of those scenes in cinema that hangs perfectly together. Script, acting, cinematography, lighting, score – everything is just right. A masterclass in filmmaking.

Whilst Day-Lewis may be unlikely to receive an Academy Award for this film, it certainly ranks up there with his most celebrated performances. He is one of this generation’s greatest actors and it is a real loss to the industry that he is walking away. However, it’s a noble decision to leave a profession whilst you’re at the top of your game. He could probably deliver a further three or four top performances, but his decision is clearly based on a balance between his enjoyment of his life as an artist and his enjoyment of his life outside of the industry. If Phantom Thread does prove to ultimately be his final role, then he is definitely leaving us on a high.

[1] Note: Jonny performed an exclusive version of this song on the Adam Buxton podcast (EP.63B, 9th February 2018) alongside a 30-minute interview backstage at the Royal Festival Hall prior to a live performance of the score on 30th January 2018. It’s well worth a listen and can be found here.

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Film review – The Polka King (Maya Forbes, 2018)

Let me get this straight, right from the start. The Polka King is not a good film. It popped up on my Netflix feed as a recommended watch and I thought I’d give it a go. It didn’t look taxing and I’d had a long day. I had low expectations but still managed to be disappointed.

I now find myself in the embarrassing situation where I’ve never seen The Ten Commandments, Gone With The Wind, The Maltese Falcon, Boyhood, Crash, The Last of the Mohicans, The English Patient, Lawrence of Arabia, On The Waterfront, Unforgiven and Dr Zhivago but I have seen The Polka King.

For that, I should be entirely ashamed.

polkascreen

Jack Black plays Jan Lewan, a real-life polka music band leader from Austria trying to make a living in the USA. He was imprisoned in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme (or pyramid scheme). That’s pretty much the story. There are some highs and lows.

Importantly, there are very few laughs. In fact, I didn’t laugh once. It is set up like a comedy. Everyone involved is a comedic actor (the supporting cast includes Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman and Jacki Weaver). The pacing of the script felt like it wanted to be a comedy.

Yet, as Black phoned in his performance and went through the motions of delivering on a part he was only vaguely interested in, I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to some of the great comedy releases from Red Hour Productions that include Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, Tenacious D in the Pick Of Destiny and DodgeBall, and wonder whether Ben Stiller simply wasn’t available to oversee this production.

There are some great Netflix Originals out there to be watched and enjoyed. This just isn’t one of them.

Video game review – Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 (Konami, 2017)

A personal history of football gaming

In 2003, I was in the middle of a hiatus from video games. Having grown up with the thrill of the NES, graduated to the vastly improved SNES and then enjoyed the comparatively mind-blowing PlayStation, by the time the PS2 arrived I’d lost interest. I got my first serious girlfriend in 2001 and with school exams also requiring my attention, I simply didn’t have time to commit to video games.

One of my go-to games throughout my initial gaming tenure was the ever-popular FIFA series. I had the first ever instalment. Titled simply FIFA International Soccer and featuring David Platt on the cover, the isometric visuals seemed like a massive improvement on Sensible Soccer, which I’d invested a dizzying amount of hours into. I didn’t know the word “isometric”, but what I saw was a 3D game of football on my screen for the first time.

The game grew with the consoles and no football pretender got anywhere near the brilliance of the one or two releases every year.

Such was my addiction that I even had a cheat printed for FIFA 2000 in gaming magazine CVG. I never did receive my £5 for that.

So, when I visited my brother at university in early 2004 and he and his housemates were playing a football game called Pro Evo, I was initially dismissive. It didn’t have any of the real team names or play names. It looked different. The controls were back-to-front. It was highly unlikely that in the two years since I’d given up video games that FIFA had been knocked off its crown.

But then I played it.

Instantly I realised why so much praise was being heaped on it. It felt so much more like a real game of football. It was also a lot more fun. It was more balanced. There didn’t seem to be as many cheap ways to score.

I was immediately jealous that I didn’t have access to the game, though I didn’t rectify the issue for another three years when I acquired an Xbox 360 and a copy of Pro Evolution Soccer 6.

I’ve since dallied with both sides of the fence, keeping up with the various merits and failings of both series. Sometimes FIFA has edged ahead, but despite the constants that it will always have – primarily the licences and more players for online modes – the PES series has invariably been much more playable.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2018

So now we’re in 2017 and I’ve picked up a copy of the latest game in the PES series: Pro Evolution Soccer 2018. It’s the first time I’ve picked up a copy of a sports simulator on release weekend for as long as I can remember, so is has been interesting joining in the online buzz.

The FIFA and PES series have converged on a version of events that has landed with an extremely similar setup. There’s an exhibition mode, a training mode, a league mode and a cup mode. There’s also a mode, here called Become A Legend, which involves taking over the career of a single player. There’s myClub mode, which allows you to spend points earned in every game mode on random players to create a team you can take online.

Finally, there’s the ever-popular Master League, a challenge for even the best PES player and a mainstay of the game for well over a decade. In this mode you take over a team of generic and very average players in a lower league and try to progress up the leagues and impress the owner of your club to the point that he will invest in better players for you to challenge for the top trophies.

Every mode has an equivalent in FIFA and neither are particularly better or worse than each other, so comparing the two on game mode alone won’t help anyone.

Where PES wipes the floor is with the gameplay. It has done for years and, having played the demo version of the latest FIFA, continues to do so this year.

Players are responsive and the simple controls allow basic skills to be executed immediately. Trapping the ball and close control when receiving the ball are amongst the simplest skills to master. Guesswork punts up the pitch rarely come off, reflecting real life. Calculated build up and through balls to strikers you know will outpace the defenders will often pay dividends. Try the same attack three times in a row and the defenders will learn from your efforts.

Winning in online modes is obviously never easy, but doing so feels like a huge victory and will be a crowning achievement of your abilities in the game.

There have been a handful of drawbacks I’ve noticed. Online mode has been blighted with either lack of players or poor connectivity, the latter being the first example of poor connection in any game I’ve noticed in well over a year. It’s frustrating to lose a match because of connectivity when it irreparably affects your ongoing ranking.

Player switching can be frustrating. It appears that it will never switch to a player behind the opposition, even if they’re a couple of steps away. That has been the biggest cause of conceded goals for me as I’m forced to bring a well-placed defender out of position to combat an advancing attacker, often then to have the ball played in behind me. That and the fact that the computer almost never concedes a foul will be rectified in an upcoming patch from Konami.

The final downside I’ve found is the inclusion of a handful of Legends in the game. This is great, but every copy of the game comes with Usain Bolt as a player in the myClub mode. When FIFA fans get Ronaldo but PES fans get someone who has never played professional football in his life, it does feel a little on the embarrassing side.

But that’s no problem for the wider game. When the gameplay and intelligent AI is this good, i can forgive the lack of real players. There’s always the extensive editing mode to rectify that anyway.

With an upcoming release of further game modes, including a career-spanning David Beckham career mode, this is a game that still has months of playability left in it and one I won’t be putting down for a long time.

Film review – Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

There aren’t many moments in cinema where you start to watch the opening scene and an uncontrollable giddy smile engulfs your face, such is the joy of what is unfolding on the screen. It needs to be a brilliant idea, executed to perfection and in a language that speaks to you.

Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s latest cinematic masterpiece, achieves just that. But the moment I knew it was a truly great film was when I realised the credits were rolling and my smile hadn’t left.

Oh, Baby!

The titular Baby is played by the young Ansel Elgort, who many will recognise as Caleb Prior from the Divergent film series. Baby is a young man who suffers with tinnitus, a whistling hum in the ear, which he got from an initially mysterious childhood incident. He works as a getaway driver for a heist masterminder named Doc (Kevin Spacey), who counts amongst his rotating team of goons a highly-strung Bats (Jamie Foxx), passionate love birds Buddy (John Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Eddy No-Nose (Flea). Lily James also stars as a waitress named Deborah.

To drown out the noise, Baby has a series of iPods to suit his moods. These are essentially soundtracking his life with a mixture of classic tunes that also serve as the soundtrack to the film, from Beck to Sam and Dave, The Commodores to The Damned.

It is these playlists that also serve as the film’s soundtrack, with sounds and visuals perfectly in sync with one another. For fans of music, and in particular soundtracks, Baby Driver is an absolute dream. The music is the backbone, catalyst and cherry on the icing, all at the same time. It’s a remarkable achievement.

If the opening sequence seems familiar, Wright used the same scenario in 2003 for the music video he directed for the track ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale. This hit the music airwaves mere months prior to his directorial breakthrough Shaun of the Dead, but watching it now you can see he probably had the idea for Baby Driver in his head as a starting point.

One of the best examples of how perfectly it works comes during the opening credits, when the first job has been completed and Baby goes to pick up some coffee from a shop near to their hideout. As Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is played through his earbuds and the backdrop becomes subtly flourished with graffiti, shop names and visual signposts, it was clear that something special was unfolding before my eyes. That this was done as a one-shot makes it all the more beautiful.

The film goes far and beyond being just a glorified music video. The car chases are breathtaking from the get-go, and there’s no let up as the story progresses. They’re believable and easy to follow, with no cheap cuts to hide poor editing and hide continuity – something of an epidemic in cinema in the 21st century.

Many of the actors are a little out of their familiarity zones with their characters, but it’s obvious that the likes of John Hamm and Jamie Foxx are taking great pleasure in being allowed to indulge their acting abilities. Kevin Spacey may be on more familiar ground, but it doesn’t make for poor viewing in the slightest.

I think her name is Debra! Or Deborah…

There’s a great use of the song ‘Debra’ by Beck in a scene that cements Baby’s relationship with Lily James’s waitress. They’re both stuck in a rut and in need of a route out, so their inevitable desire to be together is an expected story arc. Only Edgar Wright would, at this point, think it was a good time to drop in a song about a man wanting to have a threesome with two sisters. It’s a hilariously sweet moment that comes just at the right time in the film, softening up the audience before the rollercoaster second half of the story.

The fact that Elgart spends the opening thirty minutes dressed in an outfit that is very reminiscent of Han Solo shouldn’t be overlooked either. Elgart came close to being cast in Disney’s upcoming problematic Han Solo standalone film, before being overlooked in favour of Alden Ehrenreich. It’s clear that the coolness of Harrison Ford’s character is something Wright was trying to remind the audience of. However, Wright recently denied the connection in a Twitter Q&A, saying that the similarity was purely coincidental.

Similar to Han Solo? Wright is denying any links.

I just can’t be effusive of the film enough. It’s something I could watch time and time again and I’m certain I’ll be getting enjoyment out of it for years to come.

Baby Driver could well be the greatest film of Wright’s illustrious career. If you’ve not been taking notice yet, now’s the time.

Glastonbury Festival 2017 – Final thoughts

I am battered, exhausted, grotty, but yet still absolutely on top of the world that I was lucky enough to be at Glastonbury Festival 2017.

For anyone attending in their 30s, especially those in a stable relationship, there comes a time when going to these festivals with your friends becomes an increasingly reflective time. Specifically, there is an impending thought that this could well have been my last attendance for a while. The festival won’t be held next year, whilst there is a rumour circulating that the subsequent one will be held away from the site. That takes us to 2020 before the next one. Who knows where I will be by then, and who knows where my friends will be too.

As a result, I was determined to make the most out of it and pack as much in as possible whilst not destroying my body.

I wrote about each of the days in posts at the end of each day, which can be found below:

Day One – Arrival, Pitching, Fireworks Sleeping
Day Two – Prince Achmed, Quiz, Napalm Death, Everything Everything
Day Three – The Pretenders, Glass Animals, Elbow, Radiohead
Day Four – Thundercat, Jeremy Corbyn, Foo Fighters, The National
Day Five – Ed Sheeran, Goldfrapp, Barry Gibb, Chic

I also posted short reviews of three acts I enjoyed that coincided with a bit of time to make notes:

First Aid Kit
Radiohead
Laura Marling
Goldfrapp

Other highlights included a trip around the circus and theatre field (who knew man could juggle five ping pong balls without using hands or feet?), a Pilton Palais for some cinematic refuge, some fantastic food, the world’s smallest nightclub and endless other bizarre surprises I saw whilst walking around.

The most important thing is to make sure you spend it with close friend and family. I had a great bunch with me this year and managed to meet up with some friends I’d lost touch with over the years. The magic of Glastonbury never ceases to amaze me.

Live music review – Laura Marling, Glastonbury Festival, 25th June 2017

Setlist:
Soothing
Wild Fire
The Valley
Nothing, Not Nearly
Don’t Pass Me By
Sophia
Once
Salinas
Daisy
How Can I
I Speak Because I Can
Rambling Man

On a hazy afternoon at the Pyramid Stage, just before Barry Gibb kickstarted a night of partying for a crowd ready to go out in a blaze of glory, Laura Marling was providing a set equivalent of the quiet before the storm. It was a beautiful and understated performance that showed her abilities both as a songwriter and as a performer, with a subtle backing band providing a platform to allow her songs to soar.

The first and only time I had seen her previously was at the Hop Farm Festival in Kent in July 2008. Back then she’d just released her debut album ‘I Speak Because I Can‘, which was making waves at the time, and she wowed an audience who were there primarily there to watch Neil Young, Supergrass and My Morning Jacket. Not bad for an 18 year old.

Fast forward to 2017 and you can see a massive development in her as an artist. Her latest album, ‘Semper Femina‘, is a collection of songs exploring what it is to be a female. For me, music has to come from a position of passion and commitment to what is being said. For that very reason, Laura Marling absolutely one of the most authentic artists out there and the album rates in the top releases so far this year.

The new songs featured heavily in the setlist, making up five of the twelve tracks, including ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ and set opener ‘Soothing’. But it was ‘Rambling Man’ from her debut album that stuck with me the most, with most of the crowd joining in for the famous refrain.

To those unaware of her work, she could be mistaken for being overly indebted to Joni Mitchell. This is wholly untrue and inaccurate. Marling is an artist in her own right and has been prolific and consistently excellent for a decade now.

Long may it continue.

[Note] When Marling introduced Daisy, she mentioned a friend of hers called Daisy May-Hudson who last year directed a film called ‘Halfway’, a film about homeless housing struggles. I had never heard of it but I’ve located a trailer for it online here and if I can locate it online I’ll make sure I watch it

Live music review – Goldfrapp, Glastonbury Festival, 25th June 2017

Setlist:
Anymore
Train
Slide In
Everything Is Never Enough
Become the One
Systemagic
Number 1
Ride a White Horse
Ooh La La
Strict Machine

They may have had some technical difficulties that delayed the start of their set, but once they finally arrived Goldfrapp absolutely blew away the John Peel Tent at Glastonbury Festival on Sunday afternoon.

Alison Goldfrapp may well be one of the most engrossing female performers in the industry. Her striking black costume, sumptuous vocals and commanding stage presence are a powerful concoction.

They led the set off with latest single ‘Anymore‘, taken from recent album ‘Silver Eye‘. It’s a dance floor filler and highly indicative of the first half of the album. As two dancers strutted across the stage, jolting sharply, it was clear this was going to be as much performance art as it was a live gig. [1]

Favourites ‘Train’ and ‘Slide In’ followed, continuing the dance vibe that the crowd were clearly enjoying.

A trio of songs from ‘Silver Eye’ followed, with the highlight being ‘Systemagic‘, which happens to be the next single taken from the album. It’s another powerful track with a mixture of heavy bass and industrial drums. Alison was in fine form, enjoying giving some new material a new audience.

As Alison said “You know this one I think…” before the electronic pounding of the intro to ‘Number 1’, she kicked off a familiar conclusion to the set. The final tracks rounded off the set nicely, with all four amongst the most popular (or perhaps most mainstream) of their material: ‘Number 1’, ‘Ride a White Horse’, ‘Ooh La La’ and ‘Strict Machine’. This is a sensible choice at a festival, even if the more dedicated fans would have loved to hear a song or two from ‘Seventh Tree‘ or ‘Felt Mountain‘.

I’ve seen Goldfrapp on many occasions and they seem to get better and better. Predictably, the crowd went wild for them, setting sail into the warm Glastonbury air for the final night of the festival having seen one the best sets of the weekend.

[1] Catch their latest music videos below. Systemagic gives a great idea of what their stage dancers look like.