Author: michaeljglass

Verticality and the Academy ratio in Phantom Thread

I twice discussed Phantom Thread in my podcast back in February, and this brief post is a development of an observation I brought up in those conversations. You can listen to the discussions here (the second screening involved my brother who was already a huge fan of the film, having seen it five times at the cinema, by the time I’d seen it twice): Part 1, Part 2.

When I saw Phantom Thread in the cinema I was struck by how it visually emphasised verticality and compressed the frame horizontally. It felt like an Academy ratio film. The film is certainly echoing or adapting classic Hollywood style, with its period setting, rich romantic plot, extraordinary orchestral score and closing credits that conspicuously fade over the top of each other. Paul Thomas Anderson only went so far; he didn’t shoot in black and white or Academy ratio (in evoking the milieu, there’s a deep chasm between serious and corny), but I think he did a lot to create an Academy ratio feel within a widescreen frame, by choosing an appropriate location and using it in conjunction with the camera to make the frame feel tall and narrow.

It’s in the general setting, a townhouse in London with narrow corridors, tight staircases and high ceilings – you rarely see ceilings in Phantom Thread at all, the walls stretching all the way to the top of the frame giving a feeling of limitless height. There’s an interesting balance of tone achieved, too – with walls everywhere, the Woodcock residence is kind of a prison, but not an inescapable one, as there’s always the possibility of movement upwards. There always seems to be a staircase leading up and out of frame. Imagine how putting a lid on the image would affect it. (The omelette scene is the most notable exception, shot in part from below and angled upwards, the ceiling in frame at points, dramatic lighting and contrast all contributing to the drama of the climax.)

It’s in the details of the set design, particularly in the scene in which Alma ‘treats’ Woodcock to dinner and a fight, with thin wooden borders (I don’t know if there’s a term for them) lining the walls behind the characters, stretching up into the heavens. They’re spaced out behind Woodcock, framing him quite narrowly, and a candle in the foreground to the left of frame helps to both emphasise verticality and block off a portion of the frame, with Alma on the right of frame doing the same, creating a subtle frame within a frame of narrower aspect ratio. The long lens compresses the space and gives the characters, in their individual shots, terrifying, towering dominion over the audience. This scene, like the tangentially mentioned omelette scene, is shot from below, but in the tall, narrow Woodcock residence, there’s no lid to ensure the pot fully boils here. (Though during the gruesome argument that takes place, one deeply feels the lack of a staircase.) Compare the shapes in the set dressing, the way they help to narrow or widen their frames: tall, thin candlesticks and wall decoration in the dinner scene; low, wide bowls, a wide lampshade, and a horizontal hanging rack on the wall in the omelette scene. The technique of blocking off the edges of the frame is used in other shots around the Woodcock residence, with door frames and walls sat out of focus in the foreground – they’re not the focus of the shot but they’re very important in creating shape. Again, imagine those shots without the left and right parts of the frame filled with unexciting blurry doors and walls. The house would feel so much wider, less claustrophobic; perhaps freer, less bound by Woodcock’s rules and idiosyncrasies. And far from the classic Hollywood look being evoked. It might even feel, dare I say it… ugh, modern.

In fairness, this was a feeling I felt much more strongly in the cinema than I do on home media. The image dominating your field of vision, you sat quietly beneath it, a slave to it, helps to emphasise all this verticality. It isn’t nearly as effective if you’re watching on TV, but, well, you should have gone to see it at the cinema. And it’s not everywhere in the film, far from it – plenty of shots of nature, dinner parties and so on don’t share this particular feeling, but it dominates the Woodcock residence, which in turn dominates the film.

And, finally, there’s that toilet shot, the weird culmination of Woodcock’s and Alma’s awful, toxic, fairytale, beautiful, insane story: a slow track in which begins with the sides of the frame in almost total darkness, creating a near-perfect Academy ratio frame.

Anyway, this has been on my mind for a while and now I’ve gone and collected some screenshots to show you what I mean and prove to myself I’m not crazy. They’re presented here in chronological order as they appear in the film. Enjoy.

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Hamilton

This piece assumes you’re familiar with the story and music of Hamilton. The reason is that I’ve been familiar with the story and music of Hamilton for a year or more, so that’s what I brought to the matinée of the West End production I attended yesterday. I spent a period of weeks compulsively listening to the album when I first encountered it, and I’ve listened to my favourite songs often since then. I admire the verbal technicality and richness, the expressiveness of the music and use of leitmotifs. I’m not particularly critical of any of it – it’s why I was keen to see the show.

Unfortunately, it’s a show that left me rather cold.

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Dunkirk

Dunkirk Poster

Released 2017. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh.

Spoilers follow.

No film has ever left me speechless. I’ve sometimes said, “I’m speechless”, but those words have always emerged fully formed.

As the credits rolled and the lights came up after Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s World War II blockbuster, I didn’t know what I felt. I didn’t know if I felt anything. I wondered whether I’d missed something. But when I opened my mouth to speak, I had to hold my tongue because I felt my jaw quivering and my eyes welling up. It took me several moments before I could utter a coherent sentence. I’ve sobbed at the ends of films before, but this was something different. This was shell shock.

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Saw: Hyperlink Horror

Saw Poster

If you haven’t seen the Saw films yet… watch them or spoil them. Make your choice.

Following the by-then de rigueur twist finale of the fourth instalment of Lionsgate’s yearly and, it seemed, unending Saw series (2004-2010), in which sort-of-serial killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) puts people through life-or-death ‘games’, the cinema lights came up but my friends and I didn’t move from our seats. We were already discussing what we’d just seen. Saw IV‘s central twist was arguably the most remarkable the series had featured yet: while Saw II‘s two plots take place not at the same time, as the intercutting leads us to believe, but several hours apart, Saw IV ups the ante considerably by revealing that it had taken place simultaneously with Saw III – the brilliance of the twist’s execution sees Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), himself no doubt bedazzled by the series’ approach to plot structure, accidentally, and literally, walking in on Saw III‘s ending, seconds after it has taken place.

Because I’d done my homework and watched the previous three films in preparation, I had a better immediate grasp of what we’d witnessed than my friends did, and began to explain it as best I could as we slowly wandered out of the screen, but we’d barely made it to the corridor before my delineation of the plot attracted a small crowd of other moviegoers, and once I’d finished my piece, the floor opened, and an impromptu seminar began. Explaining the entire plot wasn’t as easy as explaining the twist, though, and our ensuing discussion incorporated the previous three films’ plot intricacies and particularly the backstory of Jigsaw, which was crucial to this latest film. I began to realise that this was part of the Saw experience itself: we’ve all had discussions about what a film’s message was, or what we thought of it, but our symposium was divorced from interpretation and analysis. We weren’t trying to work out what the film was communicating. We just wanted to know what the plot was.

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Inside Out

Inside Out Group

Released 2015. Directed by Pete Docter. Screenplay by Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley and Pete Docter. Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Lewis Black, Kaitlyn Dias.

Significant spoilers follow, including many of the best jokes and the ending, so if you wish to avoid anger I recommend you see Inside Out before reading on. (I also talk about the end of Toy Story 3, but if you haven’t seen that then I assume you have never seen a film in your life.)

As a child, my favourite comic strip was The Numskulls. The idea that tiny maniacal homunculi populated and drove human bodies was captivating and wild, tweaked my interest in science, and made for thousands of great jokes. Now Pixar, the undisputed master of family-friendly cinema, has turned its attention to the same idea. Colour me excited.

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The 2014 List-O-Rama

Well folks, it’s been a year of seeing films, and a year of writing about them.

I didn’t see everything, and of everything I saw, I didn’t write about everything.

But don’t let’s stop that from having a fun time with a post that’s so simple to write it makes me feel guilty.

Here are my favourite ten films of 2014. And my least favourite five.

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Exodus: Gods and Kings

Exodus Head

Released 2014. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian. Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Aaron Paul.

This piece talks almost as much about Noah as it does Exodus: Gods and Kings. So if you don’t want to know how two of the most famous stories in the world end, look away now.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is a Biblical epic. It tells an epic story, it has an epic budget, an epic cast, and a director who knows his way around epics. But something told me it would be epically dull. The trailers bored me. Christian Bale, while a great actor, doesn’t grab me as a screen presence the way a star should. The glimpses of action in the trailers looked by-the-numbers, basted with tedious CGI. It looked like Kingdom of Heaven when it needed to be Gladiator.

I was epically wrong.

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Gone Girl

Gone Girl Amy Head

Released 2014. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Gillian Flynn, adapted from her novel of the same name. Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry.

There’s no discussing Gone Girl without giving everything away from the first sentence, and this review leaves no plot point unexposed. Trust me, just see the film.

David Fincher is infamously exacting. While shooting Zodiac, his demand for precision and detail, expressed through shooting scenes upwards of 70 times before moving on, came under fire from some of his actors. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. His response was simple: “The first day of production in San Francisco we shot 56 takes of Mark and Jake – and it’s the 56th take that’s in the movie.” Fincher knows what he wants to achieve, and won’t leave until he has it. For the viewer, it’s reassuring. I feel confident that what I see in a Fincher film is exactly what is meant to be there. Everything is deliberate and necessary.

What this means it that there exists nobody better suited to direct Gone Girl, a crime drama that is about, above all else, image management. Nothing is left to chance. It feeds us information slowly and deliberately, making us suspicious of every gesture, every line of dialogue, every pause. Sets are somehow bare and devoid of action, yet we know that there’s detail and purpose in everything, because we know Fincher.

It’s what any good mystery ought to be, but Gone Girl goes further. It’s not just about a how a woman disappeared and who’s responsible. Solving the crime is just part of the story. Gone Girl is about how the story is told. The different versions different people see or are given. How and why we lie or deceive. What we want others to know and how we get inside their heads to construct narratives they’ll believe. How people change, what they hide from others, how it comes out, rapidly over days or gradually over years, and the difficulty in knowing someone, or even knowing how much you know about them. It’s about the importance and power of perception and representation.

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The Riot Club

Released 2014. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Screenplay by Laura Wade, adapted from her play, Posh. Starring Max Irons, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Sam Reid.

Spoilers in the review, folks. Don’t fret, I’ll pay for the damage.

I once heard it said that all American stories are about race, while all British stories are about class. If there’s truth to that aphorism – and I think there is – then The Riot Club might be seen as an attempt to deliver the ne plus ultra of the British story. It articulates a hatred between quote-unquote “poor people” (also known as ‘the majority of the UK’) and the Bullingdon Club elite: the hatred of the poor coming from the characters; the hatred of the gentry coming from the film. It’s been an issue since long before I was born, but one which has experienced a surge in familiarity in the public consciousness since former Bullingdon Club member David Cameron took leadership of the Conservative Party. What’s different here is that it’s not dealt with as subtext or a secondary theme, as is typical. It’s actually quite remarkable and energising to see such a direct portrayal of a class distinction of which the entire country is aware and on which most people would surely declare an opinion, if not allegiance. The Riot Club attacks its theme from point-blank range…

… and yet it still manages to miss.

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The Inbetweeners 2

The Inbetweeners 2

Released 2014. Written and directed by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris. Starring Simon Bird, James Buckley, Joe Thomas, Blake Harrison.

When the highest praise I can think of for a film is, ‘Well, it was definitely a film, not just a big TV episode’, then we’re in trouble. The Inbetweeners 2 is the latest in the long line of British sitcoms to enjoy a movie spin-off (indeed, as the title indicates, this series has spawned two cinema excursions), and it’s to its credit that it shows slightly in excess of no directorial ambition whatsoever. But that’s about all the credit I can give it.

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