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Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Day-Lewis’

I suppose we shouldn’t make the distinction between an artist’s process, product, and productivity, but I can’t help it I’m afraid. I accept that spending twenty years on a brilliant, perfect novel is a worthwhile pursuit – how could it not be? – but my personal admiration really goes to people who crank out two or three pretty good books or films every year. Perhaps it’s just because my own creative impulse tends towards a long, drawn-out process, deeply influenced by my massive innate laziness. Hey ho. Perhaps as a result of this, I’ve never been a fully paid-up member of the Daniel Day-Lewis fan club, largely because he seems to me to take a rather precious attitude to his job. Give me someone like Michael Caine, who in the Eighties would turn up in any old rubbish just because he liked to keep working, any day.

Oh well. My days of being chased down the street by outraged mobs for daring to criticise Day-Lewis for being so pernickety about his roles may be coming to an end, anyway, as the great man has apparently announced his retirement from acting, following the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. (So much for my hopes of one day seeing him play Dr Doom in the proverbial good Fantastic Four movie.) If this indeed marks the last we see of him, he is at least departing the stage in some style and with a degree of appropriacy.

In Phantom Thread Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a high-society dressmaker in the London of the 1950s. He is the creative spirit at the heart of the House of Woodcock (is Anderson aware this sounds vaguely and inappropriately amusing? Hmmm), with his intimidating sister (Lesley Manville) handling the business and organisational aspects of the business.

Following the successful completion of an important commission, Woodcock goes on a short break in the country, where he encounters and instantly smitten by Alma (Vicky Krieps), who when he meets her is working as a waitress. She is captivated by the attentions of such a wealthy, distinguished and creative man, and soon moves to London to be a part of his life.

However, we are already aware that Woodcock is something of a serial monogamist, having seen him getting his sister to expedite the departure of a previous flame at the start of the film. Once his initial ardour cools somewhat, however, Alma finds living with Woodcock to be increasingly difficult – he is demanding, discourteous, given to black moods, and strongly objects to any disruption to the routines with which he has surrounded himself. It seems inevitable that their relationship is doomed – but perhaps Alma has strong feelings of her own about this, not to mention plans of her own…

Well, as I have mentioned here in the past, I became a lifetime member of the Paul Thomas Anderson fan club the first time I watched Magnolia, an almost-inconceivable 18 years ago, and with Phantom Thread it is a pleasant surprise to come across a film of his which is (after a couple of impressive but challenging-to-watch offerings) genuinely accessible and satisfying. The story is relatively simple, but the film nevertheless raises some complex issues: Woodcock’s talent is undeniable, but does this justify him being quite so callous towards everyone around him? Isn’t this just another story about a privileged man being enabled in his pampered lifestyle by the women around him? At first it seems so, but then things become more ambiguous. The third act of the story sees events take a deeply surprising, and indeed rather twisted turn, but there’s no sense of the film taking a particular moral stand, and it’s never completely dour or heavy – there are regular moments of black comedy, usually courtesy of Woodcock’s acid tongue. Anderson evokes the period setting with his usual skill, and there is a memorable and effective score from Jonny Greenwood, too.

It is, of course, driven along by Day-Lewis, who brings all his intensity and charisma to the role. One can see why he has been nominated for so many awards for this performance; then again, he could wander by in the background of a scene and probably still get an Oscar nod. I find it a little surprising he even took this part, to be honest, given he’s to some extent playing a version of himself – an intensely driven artistic talent, who gives himself over completely to his work, uncompromising with those around him. There’s even a sequence where Woodcock hallucinates the presence of his dead mother, which can’t help but recall the fact that Day-Lewis retired from theatre work after seeing a vision of his dead father while appearing on stage.

That said, it’s not surprising that Lesley Manville has also been picking up nominations for her work as Woodcock’s sister, for she is also extremely good. The thing which is somewhat baffling is that Vicky Krieps has not likewise been showing up on awards shortlists, for the film is largely a two-hander between her and Day-Lewis and she is every bit as convincing and memorable, giving a rather less mannered performance as well. It may just be that she’s effectively a newcomer as far as Anglophone audiences are concerned, and awards are to some extent decided by your body of work as much as any single performance. (Filling out the mostly-British supporting cast are quite a few familiar and somewhat unexpected faces – people like Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson and Julia Davis all make appearances.)

This is a quiet, rather intense film, which does venture into quite dark and peculiar territory as it continues, and this may be why it doesn’t seem to have set the box office on fire – it’s only lasted about a week in the cinemas where I live, which is usually a sign of a movie which is essentially tanking. This was obviously intended as Oscar-bait rather than a prospective blockbuster, but it’s still a bit of a shame to see such a thoughtful and accomplished film failing to find an audience. Well worth seeking out, if you get the chance.

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‘I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore one life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time.’   Daniel Day-Lewis

Well, I don’t know about you, folks, but to me that sounds less like a working method than a description of some sort of disorder, but hey, it clearly works for Mr Picky as he won his third leading-role Oscar last week. Come on, Marvel, get him on board for the Avengers sequel or whatever! I’d like to see him try method-acting Thanos or the Abomination.

Lincoln

Anyway, as a conscientous sort of chap who cares about his readers I thought it behooved me to go along and actually have a look at Day-Lewis’ turn in Lincoln, and as a purveyor of cheap jokes I worried that a lengthy biopic about the American Civil War and human rights might be a bit short on laughs so I took my trusty Comparison Wrangler with me (apparently he has some sort of Illinois heritage and, as a result, a personal connection to Lincoln – I believe that, in his lawyering days, the 16th President failed to get one of his ancestors off a parking ticket, or something).

Following the movie:

‘Okay, it’s time for the question. What would you compare that film to?’

An unusually lengthy pause. Then: ‘Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry.’

I must confess to being more startled than usual by this latest gem. ‘Explain,’ I eventually managed to request.

‘Well, he was always telling people little stories – he had a story for every occasion – like Tom Hanks, in Forrest Gump.’

‘And Dirty Harry?’

‘He kept squinting all the time. Oh, and he was looking for justice, too.’

Believe it or not, I do go to the cinema with this guy out of choice. I can’t honestly endorse his appraisal of Spielberg’s film, though. This is one part historical portrait to two parts political drama, notably lighter on martial arts vampire fighting than last year’s somewhat similar Lincoln bio-pic.

The bulk of the film occurs in the space of a few weeks early in 1865. Lincoln has just been re-elected as US President, which is good, but the Civil War is in its fourth year, which is bad. That said, the Confederacy is virtually exhausted, which again is good, but Lincoln has not yet managed to get the US Constitution amended to outlaw slavery, which is also bad. For various political reasons it is absolutely vital that the amendment be passed by the House of Representatives before peace breaks out, but in order to do this Lincoln needs to manufacture a two-thirds majority which he simply does not possess.

Most of the film depicts Lincoln’s various endeavours to cobble together the majority required, which results in a number of plotlines going off in various directions – a fervent abolitionist played by Tommy Lee Jones has to be persuaded to moderate his position in order not to frighten the metaphorical horses, a dodgy political operator played by James Spader is retained to get votes from Lincoln’s Democratic opponents by offering sinecures, peace overtures from the South have to be carefully finessed, and so on. As I’ve said before, I’m not a great expert on American history, and my knowledge of their political system mainly derives from early seasons of The West Wing, but I found this all to be fascinating, challenging stuff, and I did come away wanting to learn more about the history of this period.

Less successful, I thought, was material concerning Lincoln’s relationships with his various family members – Mrs Lincoln is played by Sally Field, who to be perfectly truthful I like less than Mary Elizabeth Winstead from the other movie, and Lincoln’s eldest son is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – cue the inevitable whisper of ‘Hey, it’s Batman!’ from the seat next to mine. If this stuff is here to try to humanise an iconic figure, or possibly portray him as a hero with feet of clay, then it doesn’t quite work, possibly because Spielberg’s heart isn’t quite in it. The film isn’t quite a hagiography of its subject, but it does have an aura of reverentiality to it, and while it’s by no means humourless, it is definitely steeped in gravitas.

Daniel Day-Lewis is operating on full power as Lincoln himself, but – as usual – I found the results to be oddly mannered and ostentatious. His performances are always arresting and remarkable, but for me he never disappears into the character he’s playing: instead he straps the accoutrements of their personality on like some ornate suit of baroque armour. I found Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, which isn’t nearly so technically refined, far easier to relate to.

But then this is clearly intended as a serious film on an important topic. Spielberg’s strike rate with this sort of thing is rather variable – and personally I prefer his films when they involve people being eaten by special effects – but this is certainly towards the top end of this section of his oeuvre, engaging, illuminating, crisply scripted, uniformly strongly played, and unflashily-directed. ‘Enjoyed’ is probably the wrong word for my reaction to Lincoln, but I certainly appreciated the skill that had gone into making it.

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I don’t know about you, but when I watch a film for the first time, afterwards I’m usually sure of two things: whether or not it’s any good, and whether or not I like it (the two don’t always necessarily coincide: see The Transporter, or any number of Japanese kaiju movies). This isn’t always the case – it took two goes for me to get my head properly around Brazil, and quite a few more to understand where Beneath the Planet of the Apes was coming from. But both of those are films I first saw over twenty years ago, and recently things have been a bit more straightforward.

Well, anyway, recently I sat down to watch for the first time Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 movie There Will Be Blood (NB: title is correct), and at the end I had the unfamiliar sensation of really not knowing what to make of it. Now, I have to confess that my appreciation of this particular Paul Anderson (let us not speak of the other one at this time) is mainly due to seeing Magnolia on the big screen almost by accident one afternoon in 2000. I went mainly on the strength of a glowing review from Dr K, because this wasn’t the kind of film I usually watched at the time – but verily, my mind was blown. It is still one of my very favourite films, and as a result I will make an effort to see anything else Anderson directs. (I didn’t see There Will Be Blood when it came out because I was living in Italy at the time and, due to the dubbing, couldn’t cope with anything that had a more complex plot than Alien vs Predator 2.)

So, anyway – mostly set in the early years of the 20th century, this film tells the story of Daniel Plainview (a characteristically committed and mesmeric performance from Daniel Day-Lewis), a miner turned oilman in the south-western USA. A lengthy, silent prologue shows the extraordinary demands this life has made of Plainview, which goes some way to explaining what a remarkable character he has become. Now prosperous, he is tipped off to the presence of oil deposits in a remote California valley, and heads there to investigate. Attempting to buy up the land without revealing its true worth, he discovers it is owned by the family of a devout young preacher, Eli (Paul Dano) – and Eli suggests Plainview could get the land rights he desires if he funds the construction of a new church for the valley. Not a believer, but relentlessly pragmatic, Plainview agrees to the deal – however, the clash of the two men’s personalities and philosophies will continue for many years to come…

There’s moment, early on, in which Plainview essentially baptises his child with crude oil, and at that point I thought ‘Ah hah, this is going to be about the clash of God and Mammon, the strained relationship between the exigences of the morality of big business and  the demands of a religious life’ – and a very timely and potentially interesting subject for a movie that would be, given it was made when there was a fundamentalist Christian oil tycoon in the White House. I still think I was probably right – the clashes between Plainview and Eli recur throughout the film, each wringing increasingly humiliating concessions from the other as time goes by – but I’m sure if this is really the only, or even main, theme of the movie.

There’s such a lot of other stuff going on – Plainview’s son is badly injured in an accident at the oil well, his long-lost brother turns up looking for help, that sort of thing – which doesn’t have much to do with anything but illuminating the further recesses of Plainview’s character.

And what a character he is. In some ways absurd, in others sympathetic, in still others terrifying, he is an extraordinary creation and having seen the film I can’t imagine anyone else but Day-Lewis bringing him to life so vividly. When he was up for the Oscar he eventually won (deservedly) for this film, I had an – erm – heated discussion with a friend about him as an actor. My friend declared he was the greatest actor in history, and ordered me to consider his track record. I retorted that it’s probably easier to give really good performances when you only do one film every four or five years, and all his parts are a little bit samey – you couldn’t imagine Daniel Day-Lewis playing the lead in a Richard Curtis movie as well as Hugh Grant or Colin Firth, could you? My friend snorted passionately (he is Irish – like half of Day-Lewis – which may explain the strength of his advocacy) and said that Daniel Day-Lewis wouldn’t want to be in a Richard Curtis movie. What, I replied, so being a snob makes you a better actor?

I don’t know, let’s make him do some more movies – Mark Strong probably has a few spare projects he can’t squeeze into his schedule – and find out how good he really is. Personally I would thank Mark Ruffalo for his efforts and blackmail Daniel Day-Lewis into playing the Hulk in the next movie the character appears in. The results would certainly be interesting and it would show once and for all just how serious the great man is about this method business he’s so famous for.

Sorry, I’ve gone off on a bit of tangent there, but I think I’m entitled as it isn’t like the film doesn’t seem to be meandering around a bit either. Day-Lewis’s performance is astoundingly good, as are those of everyone else involved (apart from Dano, featured players include Kevin O’Connor from a lot of Stephen Sommers movies, Hans Howes from lots of minor roles, and currently-appearing-in-everything Ciaran Hinds), and the film is breathtakingly filmed and composed. Anderson has an effortless, restless mastery of form and here he opts for a lot of very long takes and travelling shots that give the film an easy gravitas. There are lots of interesting things going on on the soundtrack, too, courtesy of Jonny Greenwood from some band or other.

But despite the impressive performances and dialogue, the brilliant camerawork and editing, and the compelling score, this felt to me like a good film missing the strong and driving narrative it would need to make it a truly great one. This isn’t a slow film and it is filled with incident, but it doesn’t have a conventional narrative structure or any sense of how it’s going to proceed. Jumps in time happen unexpectedly, and the actual climax – such as it is – comes rather as a surprise.

Could it have been the case that Anderson became so enraptured of Day-Lewis’s performance he just decided to build the film around that? The easiest way to describe the movie is as a character piece, the study of the dissolution of one man’s character due to his driving obsession. It still feels like there should be more to it than that – towards the end it just feels like Anderson pointed the camera at Day-Lewis and Dano and said ‘Go crazy, guys, I’ll just keep rolling’ – it certainly feels more like a masterclass in the outer extremes of method craziness than any kind of structured narrative.

And yet, and yet… and so we return to the questions I discussed at the top of this piece. Was I impressed with the quality of There Will Be Blood? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt – this is the work of masters of the craft. But did I like it? This is a tougher question to answer, and I’m wondering if my fondness for some of Anderson’s earlier movies isn’t influencing me to go easier on him than I normally would. (I remember feeling exactly the same after seeing Punch-Drunk Love, which is probably quite telling.) I think I will just conclude by saying that this is quite a challenging film to watch, and an even harder one to genuinely like (as opposed to simply admire), but in the former case the effort is definitely worth it.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 16th 2003: 

Hello again everyone, and let excitement be unrestrained, let joy be unconfined, because after a slightly shaky start 2003 hits its stride with a long-anticipated epic from one of the screen’s most accomplished, yet elusive artists. Yes, that’s right, Cameron Diaz has finally made another movie!

Well, perhaps not. The movie in question is Gangs of New York and while Diaz undoubtedly plays a key role, most people will be slightly more interested in the contributions from director Martin Scorsese (who arguably hasn’t been on top form since 1993’s The Age of Innocence), Leonardo DiCaprio (absent from our screens since 2000’s The Beach – not, as you might think, out of shame, but mainly because Gangs was so long in production), and Daniel Day-Lewis (who supposedly retired from acting five years ago to become a cobbler before being tempted back for this role).

Gangs of New York is set during the birth of modern America, in the mid-nineteenth century. In a terrific opening sequence, savage combat is fought in the streets of New York between rival gangs, one made up of descendants of the original European Protestant settlers, the other of more recent Irish Catholic immigrants (Scorsese doesn’t need to stress the parallels with Ulster or other religious conflicts, nor does he). The Irish are defeated and their leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson, obviously in a cameo role) is killed. His young son is sent to an orphanage upstate, from which he emerges sixteen years later vowing revenge on the man who murdered his father – a psychopathic crime lord known as the Butcher…

From here on it’s a slightly routine revenge-drama with a few gangster-movie staples thrown in for good measure, but it’s made extraordinary by its setting – this is a period of history that seems never to have been portrayed before (or maybe the film just makes it feel that way). New York is depicted as lawless, terminally venal, and locked in a permanent state of chaos – even the rival fire brigades engage in pitched battles on the street in order to claim the ascendancy. The city is split from top to bottom, along lines of ethnicity, religion, and wealth. The richness, vibrancy, and detail of the movie is remarkable.

The screenplay recognises that America’s greatest strength, its diversity, is also its greatest weakness. The film occurs before the great Polish and Italian immigrations and strips this theme down to its barest form – that of the English and Dutch set against the Irish. (Ironically, the original settlers refer to themselves as ‘Native’ Americans.) The film’s final message on this theme is (perhaps deliberately) a little unclear – the final conflict is never really consummated but at least it avoids cheap flagwaving and sentiment, instead choosing the slightly more ominous suggestion that while the past may be forgotten, it never loses its influence over the present.

Scorsese’s flair and deftness with the camera is as masterful as ever and the editing is also frequently superb. The gang battles which bookend the film are tremendous, as is the depiction of the Draft Riots the latter one coincides with (an event which until less than eighteen months ago remained the single largest loss of civilian life in American history). Elsewhere the film is less accomplished, but it’s never less than very watchable.

This is largely due to a towering, bravura performance from Day-Lewis as Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting. Looking like a bizarre hybrid of Will Self and the Mad Hatter, he swaggers through the movie, effortlessly acting everyone else off the screen. Cutting is one of the more complex characters to appear in a major release in recent years, but Day-Lewis nails the part, managing to be grotesque, funny, and chilling simultaneously. He dominates the film, even to the point of eclipsing Jim Broadbent (who appears as a crooked politician). Broadbent is only one of an outstanding supporting cast, including John C Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, and Henry Thomas (clearly sticking to a ‘one big movie every twenty years’ regimen). Those wondering what David Hemmings and John Sessions have been up to recently will find their questions answered too.

But what of Leonardo? And, come to think of it, Cameron Diaz? Well, I hate to say it, but if this movie has a weak point performance-wise it’s in the leading couple. Diaz’s part isn’t as meaty as DiCaprio or Day-Lewis’s but she does the best she can, although she’s saddled with a ginger wig that makes her look dismayingly like Heather Graham. Both she and Leo deploy Oirish accents direct from County Leprechaun. Furthermore, Leonardo just never feels right as a street-hardened gang leader out for brutal revenge. Whatever the numbers this film does, this isn’t the acting showcase he probably intended it to be.

There are a few other problems with Gangs of New York. The plot does feel a little rushed in the final third of the film, probably due to vigorous use of the editing suite at the behest of producer Harvey Weinstein. Like DiCaprio’s last big hit (you know, the one with the boat in it) it falls into the usual Hollywood trap where the residents of the British Isles are concerned, sentimentality regarding the sons of Ireland (Irish good! British bad! shrieks the subtext, accompanied as usual by penny-whistle tootlings on the soundtrack). And I know I’m not the only one who’s startled by Leo’s ability to recover from having his face head-butted to a pulp before being branded with a hot knife (this probably isn’t a film to take elderly relatives to see) with barely a scar to be seen.

The good outweighs the bad. This isn’t the all-conquering masterpiece some people have claimed it is, but it is a vaultingly ambitious, highly intelligent, and exceedingly well-made film. Martin Scorsese’s contribution alone would be worth the price of a ticket, as would Daniel Day-Lewis’s. Together they ensure that movie standards for the year to come have been set high early on. The gauntlet is thrown down.

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